Movie Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Forest Whitaker plays a butler in The Butler who serves the White House and includes himself in history.
Forest Whitaker plays a butler in The Butler who serves the White House and includes himself in history.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is another surprise hit movie of the summer. It doesn’t feature the typical fare for what one would call a ‘summer movie.’ Actually it features more mature fair that’s meant for a release around October, November or even December. So how did it manage to become a hit this summer?

The Butler is a unique story of Cecil Gaines. Born in a cotton field, he was forced into labor by the Westfalls, a Georgia family who owned the plantation. Even though slavery was out of existence, it didn’t stop people from treating their black employees like slaves. The son raped Cecil’s mother and shot his father dead. The state’s caretaker, the mother, takes Cecil out of the farms and assigns him to be a house servant. However it would be a businessman whom encounters Cecil after he breaks into a bakery and steals a cake after running away. The businessman turns him into a successful butler who’s able to provide a good income for his wife and children. Something very rare for an African-American man to be able to do before 1960.

A breakthrough occurs when Cecil is offered a job as a butler at the White House. This is a big breakthrough for the Gaines family as they can improve their way of life. However it does not come without its prices as Gloria feels alienated from Cecil and his workaholic manner and turns to adultery. His son Louis becomes very involved with political activism and the Civil Rights Movement from restaurant sit-ins to the Black Panthers movement. That doesn’t sit well to Cecil at all to the point they fight and they don’t speak for years. His 34 year career as a butler in the White House takes some turns as he’s able to converse with the president and even influence many on how they deal with African-Americans. Cecil is also involved in other incidents such as the riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination to losing his son in the Vietnam War. The story intertwines with his career with social changes for Black America during that time period with his own family life from his childhood to his career to Obama’s inauguration.

A short while back when I was doing a Wikipedia search on the movie, I learned that this film is loosely based on Eugene Allen: an African-American butler who first served in the White House in 1952, advanced to Maitre d’Hotel in his career and finally retired in 1986. The movie admits that this is inspired by a true story rather than actually being a true story. Though one can doubt the truthfulness of the story, the script by Danny Strong does capture one’s attention and is able to mix the White House life of Cecil with moments of history and even the struggle of one family dealing with the changes and trying to make life better for themselves and for their race. It’s almost like Cecil could be labeled the ‘Black Forrest Gump.’ The relationship between Cecil and Louis also highlights the divisiveness between two generations of African Americans. One learned he had to work hard to get places. Another adopted the new attitudes of Black pride during the 60’s. The clashes between the two represent the clashes of the two generations of Black America. Lee Daniels also does a very good job of directing the movie with its complexities. This is a big move for him to go from something like Precious to something more polished. Nevertheless it’s a very good move and can allow him to replace Spike Lee as the top African American director in the business.

The actors were also excellent, especially Forest Whitaker as Cecil. I’m not sure if Forest is trying to imitate Eugene Allen or trying to make Cecil into his own character–I admit that I myself have never seen video footage of Eugene Allen–but he gave an excellent performance both in terms of the character’s personality and his aging. Oprah Winfrey also gave an excellent performance as Gloria encompassing the struggles of maintaining family unity while dealing with a husband that seems too preoccupied with success. David Oyelowo achieves a personal breakthrough here as Louis Gaines. He does a very good job of representing the new black attitude of his times in both life and personal political attitude through Louis Gaines. Supporting acting was also very good from star actors like Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Vanessa Redgrave, Mariah Carey and Jane Fonda. The supporting acting performances from the lesser-known actors like Mika Kelly, Nelsan Ellis, Elijah Kelley, Clarence Williams III and Yaya da Costa were also very good and added to the ensemble cast. One thing that struck me about Yaya da Costa’s performance of Louis’ girlfriend is the Black Panthers scene where she has a big afro and admits her desire to kill. Didn’t she remind you of Angela Davis in that scene?

There’s one glitch in the movie, it’s the casting for those who portray presidents in the past. At first I thought Robin Williams as Eisenhower was a good choice but the others didn’t seem so.  John Cusack made Richard Nixon seem awfully young as did Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson and James Marsden as John F. Kennedy. All three of them were at least ten years younger than the presidents they played when they assumed office. I feel the biggest miscast was Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Reagan had a charming personality and Reagan was not seen as charming at all in the film but rather a toughie. Makes me wonder what was with this? Was it miscasting? Or were those the ways the presidents looked to Lee Daniels or through the eyes of Cecil Gaines?

One final note of the movie. This was the scene near the end showing Obama’s election to the Presidency in 2008. I know that there has been a ton of flack given to Obama over what he’s done or what he’s failed to do as President of the United States. One thing you can’t deny is that even in the five year’s since his election, he’s still the face of hope for a race and other racial minorities. That’s one thing that can’t be taken away.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is an excellent movie worth watching. I have sometimes co-related to movie to Forrest Gump where a man is part of history. Despite some of its flaws, it was an excellent intelligent alternative to the hyped-up summer stuff and still draws audiences now.

Oscars 2011 Best Picture Nominee: The Tree Of Life

The Tree Of Life won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. The film isn’t the typical drama you’d come to expect. Instead it’s more introspective and delivers a message of a common theme of the human existence.

The movie’s story starts upon Mrs. O’Brien receiving the news of her son’s death. Mrs. O’Brien had always been taught everyone must choose between the path of grace or the path of nature. The son’s death would throw the family in turmoil. The movie then focuses on present-day Jack O’Brien, now an architect. When a tree is planted in front of his building, he reminisces about his life as a young boy during the 1950’s.

A pre-teen Jack is living with his family in suburban Waco, Texas and is now forced to choose the path for himself. His parents have equal bout opposite influences on him. His mother represents grace as she is gentle and nurturing but authoritative, presenting the world as a place of wonder. His father represents nature as he is loving but strict and authoritarian as he tries to make his boys tough for a world here perceives as corrupt and exploitative. He often questions giving up his passion of becoming a musician and instead became an engineer and hopes to achieve wealth through filing patents of his inventions.

Before Mr. O’Brien goes on a trip to market his inventions, a drowning death of a child at the town pool happens. Mr. O’Brien suddenly turns violent and unleashes an abusive rage on his boys and Mrs. O’Brien. While he’s away, Jack and the boys are raised exclusively by their mother and his feelings of rebelliousness start happening. Jack follows along with the other boys in his town and commits acts of vandalism and animal abuse, even theft of women’s underclothing from a neighbor’s house. It’s after that where Jack gets the first natural sense of his consequences and throws the stolen underwear in the river. Mr. O’Brien returns home having failed to sell his inventions. His plant closes and is given the option of staying with the company with an unpromising job or be terminated. He chooses the unpromising job which means the O’Brien family would have to move away from Waco. Upon leaving he asks Jack to forgive him for the harsh treatment of him.

What I just stated in the above synopsis was of the events that happened in the drama. That’s only half of it. The other half is what happens in the more sublime parts. The opening image of the movie is the mysterious flame that flickers in the darkness. We see it at the beginning of the film as it leads to the opening scene of Mrs. O’Brien receiving the news of her son’s death. Just as soon as an older Jack O’Brien reminisces of his childhood in the 50’s, the movie doesn’t shift back to Jack in the 50’s but of the very beginning of the universe. Galaxies are formed, planets are formed, volcanic activity and the existence of life begin on Earth, dinosaurs fight to survive and fight to conquer, an asteroid hits the Earth, and then the O’Briens marry and have Jack and his two brothers. This leads into the main drama of the story.

After Jack reconciles with his father the sublime returns as it fast forwards to an Earth five billion years later incinerated and shrunken by the sun and left completely devoid of any life. The movie returns to the present as Jack leaves work and encounters a vision of walking on rocks. As he walks through a lone wooden door frame, which is probably the door from the house in Waco which doesn’t exist, and is reunited with his family and all those who were in his life. Even those that died including his brother have been resurrected. The movie ends with the mysterious flame seen at the beginning continuing to flicker in the darkness.

For those who’ve seen the movie, there’s no question that the movie is very much thematic and gets you thinking. The biggest theme of the movie has to be the constant dilemma of the way of grace vs. the way of nature. It’s a constant choice everyone has to face in their life. It’s also made present in the movie that this dilemma has existed ever since there was life on Earth even before the human race. It’s a dilemma Jack is forced to confront as a child and witness his parents representing the two opposites. The way of grace is given additional support by the messages given by the priest. The way of nature is given additional support by all the rough, even destructive games the boys play. That theme and the various part of the film, both in terms of the plot and the sublime, focus on the theme of grace vs. nature being the universal pulse.

If there’s one weakness of the film that stands out, it’s that it tries too hard to be artistic and creative. I actually admire films that try to be original and take artistry to new levels. The only problem is all too often, many artistically inclined films look like they forget they are to be shown in front of an audience. When I critique movies, my attitude towards the more artsy films is: “Okay, I know you are trying to be artistic and creative but don’t forget you’ll be seen in front of an audience.” I also have a tough attitude towards commercial movies: “Okay, I know you want to make big money but give the audience their money’s worth.” Overall I feel a film doesn’t have to be entertainment but it should do something with the audience, like connect with them or get them thinking.

Enough about my critiquing guidelines. The problem with the Tree Of Life is that firstly it takes a subject matter that is common. It also tries to connect the dealings of loss and lost innocence with the existence of earth and the universe itself and even the spiritual world. Yes, it makes for some creative film crafting and original themes but it doesn’t succeed in grabbing the crowd or make them involved in the story line. Often the story tries too hard to let its sublime side get inside the audience that the story comes across as humorless and even unwatchable or confusing at times. That has to be the biggest glitch and that’s why I feel it doesn’t deserve to win Best Picture. Terrence Malick does his best to write and direct a watchable movie about lost innocence and reconciling with the past that tries to get inside the audience, but it misses in a lot of ways.

The best acting performance overall had to come from then-newcomer Jessica Chastain. It was her performance as Mrs. O’Brien, the struggling housewife, that was the most complex as she plays a character who struggles to keep the calm of the family despite the many fierce adversaries that come their way. Even though Chastain earned an Oscar nomination in The Help, I felt her supporting performance here was much scronger and deeper. Brad Pitt also did well but it was not his best acting performance. Actually his performance was more of a supporting performance as was that of Sean Penn. The leading performance of the movie actually comes from young Hunter McCracken. As young Jack O’Brien, he embodies the loss of innocence unraveling through its joy, anger and its heartbreak. Through young Jack, we see the embodiment of what being a young boy is all about in both a boy’s toughness and tenderness. Young Jack sees all that is happening and what would lead to the decline in relationship with his father that would pave the way for the reconciliation. The film’s best qualities are the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and the musical score by Alexandre Desplat.

The Tree of Life tackles familiar themes of coming of age, loss of innocence and reconciling with the past. The problem with it is it tries too hard to connect it with the existence of the universe, all life on earth, the end times and even the spiritual world. Although it didn’t really appeal to me, I’ll just sum it up by saying it’s a love-it-or-hate-it film.