Butler, The (2013)


Director:  Lee Daniels
Cast:  Forest WhitakerOprah WinfreyJohn Cusack, Vanessa Redgrave, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Robin Williams, Alan Rickman, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, Jane Fonda
Plot:  As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect this man's life, family, and American society.

Genre:  Biography / Drama
Awards:  -
Runtime:  132min
Rating:  NC16 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.

Some critics have accused of Lee Daniels of being too 'Lee Daniels', of trying to be too blatantly sympathetic to the African-American community.  Others lamented his ambitiousness in trying to cover the troubling American race politics of the 20th century in an omnipresent sweep of the major events that are now considered historical milestones, rather than through a more intimate and introspective look at a few key moments that more than illuminated a nation's conscience. 

For me, I think Daniels has done a decent job.  While it is not going to sweep the Oscars any time soon, the film remains well-put together, though it is not without its weak moments.  Starring a host of recognizable names that could possibly be read off as an invitation list to The White House, The Butler is very much held together by two central performances from two charismatic actors – Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, both of whom light up the screen even when the material becomes ominously dark. 

The rest are given supporting roles, or you might even say, cameo roles – Robin Williams, John Cusack, Alan Rickman play past US presidents, but not necessarily with aplomb.  The ensemble cast works to some extent, but everything still falls back to Whitaker and Winfrey.

Daniels pretty much has a good grasp of American racial-political history.  It is also made quite palatable to the average Joe, though that itself implies that the film doesn't really bother to probe on issues from an intellectual standpoint, but rather finds easy comfort in just presenting what happened in the last century. 

Whitaker playing as one of the longest serving butlers of The White House is at once interesting because he is such a fine actor, and also ironic.  The irony is made particularly obvious as Daniels emphasizes on the notion of a black man who serves longer at The White House than any white man could ever dream of.

The Butler at times feels lengthy, not because it has a lot to cover, but that the material is not always consistently engaging.  It however quite successfully depicts the black man's plight, and despite the strife and struggles, there is a sense of optimism for the future.  American history buffs and racial equality advocates are more likely to catch this, but they might also be the most critical.

Verdict:  An ensemble piece that centers on the troubling racial-political history of the US that is somewhat held together by the lead performances of Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.

GRADE: B (7.5/10 or 3.5 stars)

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