Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: Lee Daniels' The Butler

Release date: August 16, 2013
Running time: 132 minutes
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Dayid Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz
Who to see it with: Civil rights advocates and grade school history students


Lee Daniels' The Butler lightly explores American history and civil rights through the eyes of conflicted butler Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) during his 1952–1986 White House career. While Cecil and his fellow employees largely enjoy their work and don't complain about racism, his wife Gloria (Winfrey) feels he spends too little time at home and his older son Louis (Oyelowo) is deeply troubled by racial inequality and his father's subservient profession. The movie is best when focused on Cecil's relationships with his family and coworkers. Cecil and Louis' relationship delves into their complex clash of ideals--accepting the status quo and quietly serving superiors versus fighting for a world where no race is considered superior. Cecil has a natural rapport with his wife, friends and coworkers that makes their scenes moving and funny.
The Butler is clumsier when directly addressing politics. It sometimes feels like civil rights Cliffnotes and, aside from Alan Rickman's Reagan, the Presidential casting is somewhat distracting with cameos from Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber and John Cusack. Whitaker effectively portrays Cecil's inner turmoil when interacting with the Presidents and First Ladies, but the story's lengthy time period makes its coverage of issues seem a bit shallow (despite omitting three Presidents) and its most pivotal moments can be melodramatic. I wouldn't suggest lengthening the already long movie to address this; in fact, it may have benefited by placing the Presidents further into the background and discussing their ideologies in subtler ways. The central conflict and relationships of Lee Daniels' The Butler are complicated and moving, but they're awkwardly paired with less successful political moments.

Rent it.

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