First things first, as you’ll see, I refuse to call this movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Have you heard the story about why they had to retitle the film from simply The Butler? Oh, please read about it [HERE]. It’s one of the most idiotic behind-the-scenes controversies in recent Hollywood history. The Butler is a movie I wasn’t excited to see, per se, but because it’s considered one of this year’s serious awards contenders, I’m sort of required to see it so that I’m “in the know” come January. It’s certainly worthy of consideration in several categories, but this is not the best movie of the year, and it should not be nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, or for its adapted screenplay (from Danny Strong, who won an Emmy last year for adapting Game Change for HBO).

Although I feel the film is good on the whole and very good in spurts (I’m almost positive that’s the first time I’ve ever typed the word ‘spurts’), its biggest issue for me lay in its confusing tone and message. The Butler sends out mixed signals with regards to what kind of movie it wants to be. I can’t tell whether it’s supposed to be a biopic about Cecil Gaines (the real-life guy’s name was Eugene Allen), or a movie about the civil rights movement, or a movie about civil rights as seen and experienced through the eyes of the Gaines’ family (which seems to be the most accurate of the 3 options). I shouldn’t have to go online and find an interview with Lee Daniels and/or Danny Strong to find out, either (nor will I). I think it would have been a much stronger, tighter movie if it had honed its focus more. It could have been an excellent movie about this one man and his immediate family, but instead it’s an okay movie about the man, his family, and how they experienced the civil rights movement.

The primary cast is all really good; Forest Whitaker turns in one of his career-best performances as Gaines, Oprah Winfrey (in her first real acting role since Beloved in 1998) shines as his wife Gloria, David Oyelowo is great as their political activist oldest son Louis, with Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Lee Daniels veteran Lenny Kravitz rounding out the meatier roles. Oprah is already being declared a lock for one of the Best Supporting Actress nominations come this awards season by most of the insiders I read, and while I thought she was really, really good, the role wasn’t THAT special or THAT demanding that she should already be getting this hype. I guess it’s good to be Oprah inside the biz out in L.A., but she’s no lock for one of my nominations. One thing’s for sure, Winfrey’s role in this movie is nothing compared to Mo’Nique‘s earth-shattering, slam dunk Oscar-winning performance in Precious, which was Lee Daniels’ last big awards contender. I’ll consider Oprah for Supporting Actress, but don’t believe the hype just yet. It definitely helps that Supporting Actress is typically the weakest of the 4 acting categories (as far as the number of good options to consider) and thus the easiest to get into.

the butler oprahOprah is smoking and wearing minimal makeup?! NOMINATE HER.

There were a couple of other standouts in the cast who you probably have never heard of. First was Elijah Kelly [IMDb], who played Gaines’ younger son, Charlie. This kid virtually jumped off the screen, stealing every scene he was in. I thought he was fantastic, and I need to see him in more prominent roles going forward. I was also really impressed by Yaya Alafia [IMDb], who played Louis Gaines’ afro-touting Black Panther girlfriend, Carol. Not only is she gorgeous, but she possesses this incredible intensity that you rarely see in modern female characters. Both of these young actors are now officially on my radar.

yaya alafiaOH, HAI, Yaya.

I’m gonna say that while the cast is pretty damn solid on the whole, it’s also way too big. And by big I mean there are too many well-known actors playing bit parts that come across as distracting pieces of stunt casting. Instead of being engrossed in the story throughout, the whole movie becomes a game of, “Oooo, look, it’s…” I heard various old farts in my screening have at least 10 moments of recognition during the film, and it annoyed the piss right out of me. Instead of simply casting good actors, Daniels’ policy apparently was “hire whoever the most famous person is that will say yes”. We’ve got rapper David Banner as young Cecil’s father for all of 2 minutes at the beginning of the film, Mariah Carey with no makeup as his lunatic mother who stares off into space but doesn’t say anything (her appearance lasted about 15 seconds, if that), Vanessa Redgrave as The Old White Woman, Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, That Guy From True Blood as Martin Luther King Jr., with John Cusack doing a mediocre Richard Nixon accent without looking like Richard Nixon but playing Richard Nixon anyway. And God bless him, but James Marsden is the worst JFK look-a-like I’ve ever seen in a major Hollywood movie. Am I forgetting anyone? Probably. How they got this many big names to appear in a movie with just an okay script is beyond me. It must be Oprah Power.

I really don’t understand why some of these people agreed to take on these tiny roles. I mean, at some point, someone said to Alex Pettyfer, “You get to cameo in the movie for about 2 minutes of screen time as a raping, murdering racist with zero redeeming qualities!”, and Pettyfer’s response apparently was, “Sign me up!” I need this explained to me.

Most of the movie’s modest $30 million budget (it was independently financed) was no doubt spent on the period look of the film, which they did a wonderful job bringing to life. We travel through several decades’ worth of clothing, cars and interior design, and the art direction and costumes are on point through it all.

lee danielsLee Daniels’ photo of Lee Daniels.

I think Lee Daniels is a good, but not great director. He certainly excels working with actors, but I think his visuals could use some serious beefing up. Of course, the visual presentation of this movie was restricted due to its budget, but there are always things you can do in-camera and with good editing that don’t require expensive visual effects or massive sets. Regardless, I’m always happy to see black directors enjoy critical and box office success working on films that actually have some relevance. Of course, we’re still seriously lacking in prominent female and colored filmmakers in mainstream Hollywood. I have a feeling Oprah’s involvement and hyping up of the movie is the primary factor in bringing all the white folks to the yard, but that’s a rare instance of someone famous using their influence for good, so I ain’t mad at her.

My favorite parts of the movie were the smaller moments with the various members of the Gaines family. I wasn’t a huge fan of the various interactions between Cecil and all the presidents over the years, because I thought the civil rights stuff and the small field of view on the presidents’ policies were the weaker aspects of the script and story. I was also put off by the last 15 minutes or so of the film, which is basically Barack Obama propaganda as the Gaineses witness the election of America’s first black President. It was nice to see how this personally affected those characters after everything they’ve been through, but they went way overboard in lovingly kissing Obama’s ass. But that’s just one man’s partisan opinion.

In the end, I was a bit disappointed given all the hype, but I still enjoyed the movie nonetheless and have no problem recommending it. If you like seeing all the Oscar contenders, The Butler has to be on that list this year. After 5 weeks, the film has grossed an estimated $96 million domestic and will definitely cross $100 million, which has to be immensely satisfying for everyone involved. It’s always nice to see a film that isn’t completely whitewashed become a big hit at the box office- especially so when it’s a drama. Not that the major studios will notice, because those executives are too busy scheduling release dates for their $200 million tentpoles in summer 2017 to notice or care that audiences are interested in more than one thing.

IMDb Rating: 7/10

Biggies Consideration: Best Ensemble Performance, Actor (Forest Whitaker), Supporting Actor (David Oyelowo), Supporting Actress (Oprah Winfrey), Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup

Another interesting read is The Hollywood Reporter‘s story Why ‘The Butler’ Has 41 Producers.

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