The Butler’s Son is a stirring, gripping look at one of the most fascinating periods in American history told through the eyes of a young man (David Oyelowo, Jack Reacher) who seeks to make a difference by joining the civil rights movement and endures racism at its ugliest at every turn in his never-ending quest for equality.
That’d be a heck of a movie and one I’d strongly recommend. Too bad that’s not the case with Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a well-meaning, but overly long history lesson that largely finds its captivating hook whenever the attention is focused off its title character.
The film is based on the life of Eugene Allen — a White House butler who served eight presidents for 34 years — and had a behind the scenes seat of historic happenings such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.
Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker, The Last Stand) looks back at his life starting with his early childhood where he worked on a cotton plantation alongside his parents (David Banner and Mariah Carey).
Upon leaving the plantation, Cecil gets a job working as a butler. Daniels — now directing his fourth film — skips over the rest of Cecil’s formative years and jumps to his middle-aged life where he’s married to a wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) growing ever more discontent with his long hours and has two sons, Louis (Oyelowo) and Charlie (Isaac White).
Cecil gets a big break when he’s selected to join The White House staff. There, he makes fast friends with Carter (Cuba Gooding Jr. in an enjoyable supporting role) and James (Lenny Kravitz, The Hunger Games).
Screenwriter Danny Strong (Mad Men) seems to recognize the limitations of Cecil’s story — Allen’s tale was neatly told in Wil Haygood’s A Butler Well Served by This Election article in The Washington Post, not a full-length book — and crafts a more audience engaging subplot with Louis.
Oyelowo conveys the rising disgust of a young man who wants to make a difference and despite being humiliated at sit-ins, attacked by the KKK and arrested, Louis won’t back down. By telling the story through Cecil’s eyes, we want him to, in Spike Lee’s words, “Wake Up!” and embrace Louis — a true hero striving for equality.
Instead, Daniels and Strong get too caught up showing Cecil’s random encounters with the presidents. We get a presidential roll call with cameos by Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Richard Nixon (John Cusack), John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber) and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) — no Jimmy Carter or Gerald Ford though curiously enough.
Problem is since Cecil is such a passive observer that can’t speak unless spoken to, these interactions are forced and accomplish nothing more than to show that he was there. The actors offer little more than impersonations save Jane Fonda, who smoothly vanishes into her role as Nancy Reagan.
Whitaker is a consistent actor that can rise to greatness with the right role. Cecil isn’t an especially challenging role for him and he offers a steady, if unremarkable, performance. Ditto for Winfrey.
Oyelowo is fantastic and Yaya DaCosta (Tron: Legacy) delivers a breakout performance as Lucas’ girlfriend, Carol, who struggles to deal with the humiliation of the nonviolence effort before finding a more suitable outlet for her surging anger. DaCosta is definitely someone to keep an eye on in the future.
As for The Butler? Daniels wants to serve up a rousing, inspirational tale, but he can’t find a way to make his main character more than a supporting character with too much screen time.
Rating: 5 out of 10
Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company
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