Friday, August 16, 2013
Lee Daniels' The Butler
The film opens in a cotton field in 1926 in segregated Georgia. Young Cecil Gaines witnesses a white plantation owner's horrific act toward his parents. Sympathized by an elderly owner (Vanessa Redgrave), Cecil is given a chance to learn how to be a house servant. That paves the way for Cecil (Forest Whitaker) to be a butler at hotels, before he eventually becomes a butler at the White House.
Cecil is impeccably precise at work and faithfully fulfills his duty. He trains himself to hear nothing and see nothing, even when he witnesses the most powerful people in the nation dealing with significant and historical events. That detached attitude also affects his life at home. His wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) resents his absence at home and turns herself to alcohol. Their elder son Louis (David Oyelowo) leaves home and becomes a civil rights activist. Their younger son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) is enlisted and fights the Vietnam War. After serving the presidents one by one, Cecil sees, hears, and experiences everything—the making of history.
The film is inspired by a 2008 article in The Washington Post about Eugene Allen who served in the White House as a butler for 34 years. But while telling Eugene's extraordinary story through Cecil, director Lee Daniels is determined to pack every steps of Cecil's life into this film and wants to make Cecil an epic testimony for civil rights movement. That effort makes the film look like a syllabus for preparing a final exam on the history of civil rights movement. The film chronicles all the major events, but only in bold subject lines with a side note on the margin saying: Cecil witnesses this. As a side effect, the film often cuts a scene away prematurely to hurry up to the next happening, which often unfortunately undermines the character's development and the suppresses characters' emotion.
One exception is the character of Cecil's elder son Louis which is well written and strikingly engaging. The father and son relationship between Cecil and Louis is perhaps the only mesmerizing interaction among the large number of characters in the film.
The film's casting is such a hot mess that it provokes numerous amusing moments—not because the characters' saying or doing is funny, but simply because we are surprised to see who is playing a role. One of today's most famous TV personalities, Oprah Winfrey, shouldn't have been casted as Gloria. We hear chuckles in the audience when she is drinking and smoking on the screen—that's because we see Oprah instead of Cecil's wife Gloria. Similar distracting comic moments arise when Jane Fonda appears as Nancy Reagan, Robin Williams as President Eisenhower, John Cusack as President Nixon. The list goes on.
Despite the quiet and disciplined appearance, in the end, Cecil is no longer an invisible butler serving the most visible men. He bears every mark of this nation's history. That's what the movie is trying to depict. Nobody says it's easy.