ONE QUIET VOICE CAN IGNITE A REVOLUTION.
The tagline of Lee Daniels’ The Butler would catch your attention, but alas i think it falsely advertise the content of the film. First and foremost The Butler is loosely inspired by White House Maître d’hôtel, Eugene Allen and a Washington Post article written about his life, aptly titled ‘ A Butler Well Served By This Election‘.
Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) lost both of his parents in the cotton plantation due to the temperaments of the farm’s owner. He was then taken in by the elderly matriarch as the house niger, serving the people of the estate instead of working in the plantation. “The room should feel empty when you’re in it”, she sternly advised. When he grew up he decided to leave his childhood and the estate behind, only to discover the harsh reality of the real world beyond. He was taken in under the wing of the master servant of a hotel, learning the skill of service and later earn him a promotion to a hotel in Washington DC. Cecil found the love of his life and started a family with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and their two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley). Later in the hotel he was headhunted to be a part of the White House housekeeping staff during the Eisenhower’s administration.
Gaines worked at the White House for 34 years, serving 8 Presidents of the United States as they come and go from their administration. In his silence as he stood in the corner and poured them drinks or catering to any of their needs, he witnessed their president weighing their decision to make the right decision for the country, most specifically those that address the race segregation issue.
There’s an interesting juxtaposition between his career in the White House and with his life at home, especially coming from his eldest son, Louis, as well as his wife Gloria. Right about the time Cecil begin his job at the White House, Louis son is leaving home to attend university in the south where he joined a student movement for equality and begin protests in public segregated place. His experience while doing his protest was filled with violence and dead threats, making prison almost like a second home he spends so many of his nights behind the bar, much to his father disappointment. But we can see the different point of view of Louis who was the object of the news Cecil saw on screen, the problem that his presidents have to mulled over. Interestingly they both are subjected to discrimination in their own way, and both are neither wrong nor right in their judgement, which made these character even more fleshed out and humane.
Danny Strong, a seasoned screenwriter known for his nominated works such as his original 2008 Recount and adaptation for 2012 Game Change, and The Butler just fall right on his alley. Although Strong created an interesting juxtaposition between a personal biopic set against major political moments of America history is very interesting. There should be a delicate balance at play to keep this type film from loosing its focus. But alas, this film it unfortunately did. Cecil Gaines life often become secondary, overpowered by the political narrative from his son Charlie’s story arc. So the beautiful story of a father and son struggling relationship does not came across as strongly as i supposed it should.
The film modest production budget definitely become a factor especially when it come to production. There were times where i thought the film simply does not look well made, cheap, and fake. The editing particularly in the first half was rather sloppy and disconnected. Though perhaps it was just my personal opinions for overly nitpicking that aspect there. The actors and actresses featured in the film are well known for their works but not exactly perfectly cast for their roles. Sometimes these actors’ talent are wasted for such a short screening time and their insignificance. I wonder if the budget for hiring them would be better use for a better production design instead. However, i have to applaud Forest Whitaker for his understated crafts in embodying the character’s devotion and his internal struggle in his silence and spoken through small gestures and gazes. David Oyelowo does a solid work here (after i quietly disregarding his makeup on some scene).
It is an interesting piece especially when it come to the current political condition of America, especially with their first black POTUS, Barack Obama. In one of the scene, Louis was having a conversation with his brother Charlie who were enlisted in the army and about to leave for Vietnam. Charlie was saying, ‘this is me fighting for my country’, just like Louis is fighting for a better America without discrimination. In a way their father Cecil, through his work is doing his fight for his country as well. There were small things like that to appreciate in the film that made me overlook the flaws. Who knows, perhaps it is because of my own unfamiliarity to the US history of civil movements and racial discrimination that i failed to appreciate the film for what it truly is.
LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER (2013)
GENRE Biopic, Historical, Drama
DIRECTOR Lee Daniels | PRODUCER Pamela Oas Williams, Laura Ziskin, Lee Daniels, Buddy Patrick, Cassia Elwes | WRITER Danny Strong | MUSIC Rodrigo Leão | CINEMATOGRAPHER Andrew Dunn | EDITOR Joe Klotz | STUDIO Laura Ziskin Productons, Windy Hill Pictures | DISTRIBUTOR The Weinstein Company | COUNTRY United States | BUDGET $30 million | RUNNING TIME 93 minutes | RELEASE August 16, 2013 (US)
STARRING Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo
FEATURING Elijah Kelley, David Banner, Mariah Carey, Terrence Howard, Adriane Lenox, Yaya DaCosta, Alex Pettyfer, Vannesa Redgrave, Clarence Williams III, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Colman Domingo, Robin Williams, James DuMont, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda
Just a little FYI, here’s an interesting TED talk about the illusion of skin colors by Nina Jablonski.