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The Butler – Movie Review

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The Butler – Movie Review

Rating: B (Good)

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In making a historical film about the civil rights movement with a cast of well-respected actors and Harvey Weinstein in the executive producer’s seat, there is that line the filmmakers need to be careful to not make it too much like a project designed to win Oscars. This does not happen with The Butler, which spans the decades in a way that almost recalls Forrest Gump, but manages to avoid the over-sentimentality. Inspired by true events (“inspired” being the key word), writer Danny Strong takes the real-life persona of a butler who served in the White House for many years and runs with that concept. As has been widely reported, most of what transpires on screen is fictional, but that does not make the material any less interesting.

What is key to The Butler’s success is that almost the entire film is told from the eyes of Cecil Gaines, a likeable protagonist who Forest Whitaker has to portray two different sides to: the family man trying to figure out his son and the butler who has to stay in the background. His journey is a fascinating one with Strong and director Lee Daniels doing very well in subtly showing his changes through the decades. The contrast between Cecil looking outside from the White House and his son Louis in the middle of the civil rights movement is well-done. It also showcases how at odds they both are, yet they mature and grow in different ways. Daniels hits a lot of the recognisable points during that era in African American history, while being integral to Louis’s growth as a character.

The film also makes the smart decision to not turn the focus away from Cecil and Louis’s struggles and accomplishments, despite the recognisable presidents that appear throughout the story. The various Commanders in Chief only appear on television or when Cecil is in the same room with them. Yet those glimpses are still enough to let us know about their personalities, even though these are some of the most recognisable faces of American politics from the last half-century. The actors do not succumb to the expected stereotypes and images we tend to see with these presidents. John Cusack seems like an unusual choice to play Richard Nixon, but is actually very good due to not overdoing it like other performers tend to. Though the makeup department gives him a prosthetic nose, his Tricky Dick does not resort to the heavily hunched posture and strong growl of a voice we tend to see with on-screen depictions of Nixon.

The same applies to James Marsden, whose John F Kennedy does not have the heavy Boston accent and Alan Rickman mainly uses the makeup to help transform him into Ronald Reagan. That subtlety with how the Presidents are portrayed was a great decision on Daniels’ part, as more broad performances would have taken the focus away from Cecil and Whitaker. The Butler is not about the Presidents, after all, it is about the butler. With that said, every single actor in this film is well-cast and all do a solid job of playing their characters. Even the presence of Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s wife does not overpower or get in the way of the material. The only actor whose character and storyline seems out-of-place is Terrence Howard, whose brief tryst with Winfrey ultimately leads nowhere and detracts from the civil rights and White House storylines.

The makeup team did an especially impressive job of aging the actors and making the Presidents look just right. Even without the on-screen titles highlighting the administration and year, the audience would still have known who was sitting in the Oval Office. Meanwhile, Whittaker does look realistically old in his later scenes. Costume designer Ruth Carter also puts a lot of great work into recreating the fashions and looks of each decade, all done to exquisite detail. Though in a nice touch, Cecil’s butler uniform stays generally the same throughout the entire film. In this day and age, historical dramas try harder to capture the feeling of decades past and The Butler is definitely a case where they succeed in transporting the audience there, whether it be the harsh times of the Jim Crow South or the classic White House hallways.

However, The Butler’s biggest accomplish is it does not feel preachy and overly sentimental, even when showcasing its important message. In the end, it is about a man who served his country while remaining invisible and not known until many years later. Daniels and Strong take careful steps in making the film work as a piece of historical drama. Anybody who finds that period of American history to be fascinating will find a lot of elements to like in The Butler, but the themes are universal enough to appeal to plenty of viewers.

Review By: Stefan Ellison


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