Journal Express, Knoxville, IA

December 26, 2013

Movie Review: Lee Daniels' The Butler

Steve Woodhouse

Knoxville — I didn't like this movie. It's one of those that falls victim to overestimating its own importance and storytelling quality. 

This is the story of Cecil Gaines, portrayed by Forest Whitaker. Gaines' father is shot while the two work in a Georgian cotton field, and Gaines is brought in to the house to serve in that capacity. This upbringing leads him to a life as a house servant who works his way into the role of a butler at the White House. 

Whitaker is a great actor, who has delivered several performances I've enjoyed over the years, but in this case, for being the main character in the film, there wasn't much for him to do. It seemed as though the character was just there when all of these historically significant events occur. Granted, a butler is just supposed to be there, but you can't make a good movie, telling the story of the butler, without giving the butler an opportunity to own a scene. 

One of the challenges of this is that the film is filled with big personalities playing even bigger historical icons. The cast includes Robin Williams, Alan Rickman, James Marsden, John Cusack and Liev Schrieber portraying Presidents. Each of these men are good actors, but the problem is that because they're playing such iconic roles, they seem to overdo it. It's kind of a turnoff from that perspective, but when you provide this additional challenge to another great actor in Whitaker, who is supposed to portray a subdued character to start with, the result isn't good. 

Of course, Whitaker's other scenes are not easy as well, often being joined onscreen by Oprah, Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Terrance Howard, all of whom are talented, but limited by their one-dimensional characters. 

The opportunities for Whitaker and his character to shine are in the scenes with the character of Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo). The story that I believe Daniels should have placed more emphasis on is the one between Louis and Cecil. Louis was active in the more aggressive side of the civil rights movement, at the same time his father is in a traditional, submissive role to the very white people in power, against whom Louis is trying to stand. The eventual accord Louis and Cecil reach is a touching moment and the best opportunity for Whitaker to shine. 

It might just be my right-leaning ways that turned me off to this. I was enjoying the movie until it took a turn to put so much emphasis on how great it was for Cecil and other African-Americans to vote for Barack Obama. That lost me, because, I don't see how the Obama Presidency has been anything, to this point, of which anyone can be proud. 

If you're in the mood for overacting and liberal propaganda, this movie is probably for you.