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"LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER"
(2013) (Forest Whitaker, David Oyelowo) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A black man serves as a butler in the White through eight presidential administrations, all while becoming further estranged from his Civil Rights activist son.
PLOT:
Having grown up in the 1920s in the deep South where his father was murdered by a white man who raped his mother, Cecil Gaines (FOREST WHITAKER) has long-lived the life of a black servant. The fact that he can do his job well and yet not react to anything non-service related -- such as racist comments from white people -- has landed him a job at a nice hotel in 1957 Washington, D.C. That position eventually gets him noticed and he's called to work at the White House as a butler.

Under the watchful eye of maitre d' Freddie Fallows (COLMAN DOMINGO) and head butler Carter Wilson (CUBA GOODING JR.), Cecil begins working alongside other black butlers such as James Holloway (LENNY KRAVITZ) serving President Dwight D. Eisenhower (ROBIN WILLIAMS). Over the years and through subsequent elections, that presidential list includes the likes of John F. Kennedy (JAMES MARSDEN), Lyndon B. Johnson (LIEV SCHREIBER), Richard Nixon (JOHN CUSACK) and Ronald Reagan (ALAN RICKMAN), whose wife, Nancy (JANE FONDA), takes a liking to Cecil as do most of the Presidents.

But his dedication to work puts a strain on his marriage to Gloria (OPRAH WINFREY) who progressively turns to the bottle and company of her neighbor, Howard (TERRENCE HOWARD). At the same time, his Civil Rights activist son, Louis (DAVID OYELOWO), doesn't like him being a black servant serving white people, something not lost on Cecil who can't get his white boss, R.D. Warner (JIM GLEASON), to agree to equal pay and benefits for black employees like him.

While Cecil and Gloria's younger son, Charlie (ISAAC WHITE), doesn't have those same issues and willingly heads off to Vietnam, Louis gets deeper into the movement and its protests with his college classmate and girlfriend, Carol Hammie (YAYA ALAFIA). As his arrests mount and the years pass, Cecil never speaks up unless asked at the White House about such matters, all as he watches the various presidential administrations come and go.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
People throughout the ages have had the title of "the most famous person in the world." While the validity of that assertion can always be challenged (after all, it's sometimes claimed by the person themselves and even without that, it's unlikely any global poll has been taken to confirm such a result), people from all walks of life have been at the top, ranging from the likes of Princess Diana to Muhammad Ali.

In terms of America, however, I'd have to put my money on whoever the U.S. President might be at any given moment. After all, they're in the news all of time and get to their position by people voting for or against them after a carpet bombing of political ads, all of which obviously bolsters public awareness.

Accordingly, most people know what they look and sound like. All of which creates a problem for Hollywood casting directors, make-up artists and the performers themselves who try to portray such well-known figures. And when any part of that doesn't work, it not only sticks out like a sore thumb, but it also distracts the viewer from the overall storyline and what the filmmaker is trying to achieve.

Case in point is "Lee Daniels' The Butler," a well-intentioned but mightily bungled drama about a black butler serving in the White House spanning the administrations of President Eisenhower through that of President Reagan. While Robert Zemeckis used impressive digital trickery in "Forrest Gump" to have Tom Hanks' title character interact with actual footage of the likes of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Lee Daniels opted to have actors play the parts.

Not just any actors, mind you, but fairly well-known performers who, for the most part, deliver mediocre to quite awful impersonations of the real men. In order of appearance, there's Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as Kennedy, John Cusack as Nixon, Liev Schreiber as Johnson, and Alan Rickman as Reagan (with Jane Fonda playing Nancy). While the latter is made up to sort of look like the Gipper, Marsden appears more like Bobby Kennedy while Cusack isn't even remotely close.

Some may say I doth protest too much about such matters. Yet, not only are such moments utterly distracting (at least having unrecognizable performers playing the parts would have somewhat lessened that issue), they're also just one of many issues bedeviling this film that's filled to the brim with potential.

Of course, little did I realize (until I did some post-viewing research) that the vast majority of this "inspired by true events" tale has been completely fabricated. To be fair, this is far from the first film that's taken major artistic liberties with a real story. In this case, that would be Wil Haygood's 2008 Washington Post article, "A Butler Well Served by This Election," about former White House butler Eugene Allen who served there through eight presidential administrations and retired in 1986 (he died in 2010).

While he did have a son in Vietnam during the Johnson years, his wife of 65 years, by all accounts, was not a bitter alcoholic who hated that he spent most of his time at work, while the couple never had a son who went from being a Freedom Rider to Black Panther and ended up at the majority of the Civil Rights movement's most pivotal moments, including Selma's "Bloody Sunday," the Woolworth's lunch counter sit-in, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Working from screenwriter Danny Strong's very loose adaptation of Haygood's portrayal of the real man, Daniels ("Precious," "Shadowboxer") tries to cram all of that and more into just a bit more than two hours. I have to give the filmmaker kudos for the attempt, but it's simply too much material for the limited time and thus everything feels like highlights rather than engrossing and deep material.

It certainly doesn't help that the directorial approach (that includes more than one use of juxtaposing views of the "invisible" dad in the White House vs. that of his highly visible activist son on the front lines of Civil Rights) is mostly botched. Or that the overall story -- including growing up poor in the South only to meet Presidents and witness pivotal moments in mid 20th century America, complete with looking-back voice-over narration -- feels like the second coming of "Forrest Gump."

While this film gets some decent performances from Forest Whitaker as the title character, Oprah Winfrey as his wife and David Oyelowo as their son, Zemeckis' film not only featured equally good if not better performances, but it also had spectacle, rousing moments, far deeper emotions and a more effective and memorable storytelling approach.

Daniels' film feels like a made-for-TV movie, and a mediocre one at that. All of which means its built-in dramatic potential (even if mostly fabricated via artistic license) is squandered and the big-screen version of detailing the real man's notable career doesn't give him his fully deserved justice. "Lee Daniel's The Butler" rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed August 6, 2013 / Posted August 16, 2013


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