There are certain topics that will always, theoretically, make for good films. History is one of those topics. Simply put; the human race, our ups, downs, trials and tribulations, make for compelling stories. But, while it is fairly difficult for a movie based on historical events to be bad, it certainly isn’t impossible. And this is why it is necessary to review movies of this nature and not make it a foregone conclusion that they’ll be excellent films. Which brings us to the topic of today’s review; Lee Daniels’ The Butler (By the way, is there a reason why Lee Daniels was so adamant about putting his name in the title? Anyway… that’s neither here nor there… on to the review).
For those rare historically based films that don’t work, it is usually because the film fails to strike the correct chord between characterization and the actual historical event (see Pearl Harbor). The Butler manages to avoid this problem by giving us a perspective of the civil rights era that we haven’t experienced; that of the “subservient black”. For those who might not understand going into the movie, this perspective is significant, because it is historically looked upon as a traitorous role in black history and society. The Butler seeks more than to debunk this ideal, but to provide insight into the pivotal role it played in the civil rights movement.
The film, which takes place over several decades, follows the life of Cecil Gaines, a black man who works his way up to becoming one of the hired servants of the White House. Throughout his tenure he indirectly plays witness to some of the most powerful moments in American history, but it is his relationship with his family and how they deal with those events that allows us to recognize the impact of each controversial moment. We witness sit-ins, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, the plight of the Klu Klux Klan, the Vietnam War, and the formation of the Black Panther party. But without Cecil’s unique perspective we’d be left with something informative and interesting, but not memorable.
The film has some flaws. It gets a bit long in the tooth and some of the shots made me feel like I was watching a TV movie. Also, there is such a thing called over the top ensemble casting (David Banner and Mariah Carey????). But these flaws can be forgiven by dynamic performances elsewhere. Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, and David Oyelowo are all incredible. James Marsden and John Cusack’s spot-on impressions of Kennedy and Nixon are also noteworthy.
These portrayals mesh nicely to provide us with history through the eyes of the many different people who shaped it. In the end, the most important factor of historical films is to affectively present a message. And, despite a few aesthetic imperfections, the message of The Butler is without a doubt one that everyone who calls themselves an American should experience and understand.
FINAL GRADE: B+