[img]http://www.covercity.net/dcovers/f07679a35ac5f5f4926bc97cb8e2429c[/img]Releasing/Participating Studio(s): Starz/Anchor Bay/The Weinstein Company
Disc/Transfer Information: Region 1; Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Tested Audio Track: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Director: Lee Daniels
Starring Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, Clarence Williams III, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Robin Williams
ONE QUIET VOICE CAN IGNITE A REVOLUTION.
My wife wanted to see this, I didn’t; let me get this out of the way right now. In my opinion, and without leaning too heavily into the realm of controversial politics (which, like religion, can easily ignite a war), Lee Daniels has spun a pro-Obama yarn here that is so obviously tainted with somewhat racial overtones it would be apparent to even Stevie Wonder; as I said, I don’t want to get into tangents here and ruffle any feathers because I know this is a touchy subject…I just wanted to point out the emotions rifled from me once I came out from watching it. Perhaps most disturbing about the entire Butler debacle is the fact that Daniels just didn’t get any of the casting right so far as the U.S. presidents were concerned – Robin Williams as Eisenhower? John Cusack as Nixon? James Marsden as Kennedy? Really? It almost seemed as if the presidents in this case were a complete afterthought compared to the likes of the lead role (Cecil Gaines) and other historical figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. (though I didn’t think Daniels got that right, either).
The Butler follows the life and struggles of one Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker) who served eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House. While this was so “important” to document I’ll never know, but during Gaines’ life much triumph and negativity is experienced including the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the assassination of both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. What Daniels does best in this film is showcase a man’s life from his boyhood as a slave child in the American South all the way up to retiring as an old man around the time Reagan comes into power; the concluding frame depicting Cecil’s wife Gloria (played by Oprah Winfrey) passing away almost in front of him from old age and what appears to be a breathing problem in their own home was difficult to watch and really makes you think of just how mortal we really are. But the fact that Daniels interplays this heartfelt, solemn moment with preceding frames depicting the couple “celebrating” the arrival of Barack Obama on the presidency scene simply injects bits of uneasy stereotyping that didn’t sit well with me. In other words, I saw where Daniels was going with this…and I didn’t like it.
Still –the filmmaker was presumably working with documentation of the real-life doings of Cecil Gaines and his family and if that was the case who can fault him. Shocking in its honest brutality, the opening sequence of The Butler, as narrated by an elder “Cecil” (Whitaker), shows Gaines as a little boy working the cotton fields with his father Earl (David Banner) during the slavery times of the U.S. South. Cecil’s life is forever changed when he witnesses the slave master shoot his father down right in front of him, prompting him to leave the plantation and escape this horrific life. He stumbles upon an upscale (for the time period) hotel in which he breaks into to steal cakes he sees in the window because he’s starving. The head butler of the hotel, Maynard (Clarence Williams III), takes the boy under his wing and cleans him up, teaching him everything there is to know about serving “the white man” – again, Daniels paints a shockingly painful-to-watch portrait of how times were back then for people of color, as Maynard describes to Cecil how he must be “invisible” when working a room and serving the white skinned guests. Maynard is so proud of how far Cecil has come under his tenure, he recommends the young man for a job in Washington D.C., and before he knows it, Cecil is getting an interview at the White House to be on its butler staff. The problem I had here is the way in which Daniels speeds up the timeline and explains things – for instance, Cecil is somewhere in the South, working at this hotel with Maynard, when all of a sudden he’s in Washington living in a house, providing for a wife (Winfrey) and two kids and getting interviewed for a job in the White House itself; this whole aspect wasn’t really fleshed-through in my opinion.
At any rate, Cecil (now portrayed by Whitaker in his adult years) impresses the head butler enough to get the gig and before he knows it, he’s working for presidents alongside other butlers like Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz). While he settles into his new job, all kinds of changes are occurring in the world including the savagery prior to the civil rights movement, Ku Klux Klan murders and Black Panther Party gatherings; before long, Cecil’s son Charlie goes off to Vietnam and gets killed there, while his other son Louis (David Oyelowo) takes arms up with the Panthers and meets a snooty, militant girlfriend in college named Carol Hammie (Yaya Alafia). We get a good glimpse into what the world must have been like during this turbulent time when Louis and Carol take a class together that supports blacks standing up for themselves in society and when they attempt to apply those teachings to the outside world; the students enter a diner during a time in the South when blacks and whites were completely segregated in society and decide to sit on the “whites” side of the lunch counter. Refusing to move even when threatened by first the diner management and then a pack of white youths that come into the diner, the protesters from the college find themselves in a bad situation when they’re spit on, punched, denigrated and dragged outside to be beaten by the angry, out-of-control white crowd.
While this is happening, Cecil continues his tenure as butler in the White House as different presidents come and go through his time there; we first meet Dwight Eisenhower (played awfully by Robin Williams) who takes a liking to Cecil as his butler and then go on to meet Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber), John Kennedy (James Marsden), Jacqueline Kennedy (the deliciously gorgeous Minka Kelly; but completely miscast here by Daniels), Richard Nixon (the totally wrong John Cusack) and finally Ronald Reagan (played by none other than Die Hard’s Alan Rickman) and his wife Nancy (Jane Fonda, who looked remarkably like the real Nancy here). With each passing successive presidency, Cecil comes to be liked more and more, until the point that the announcement of his retirement leaves many depressed and disappointed – okay, saddened is probably the correct term there.
Delving into some other aspects of Daniels’ The Butler, Cecil’s wife, as portrayed by Oprah, is seen as a drunk, moody type that can go from zero to catty in seconds; while Cecil struggles with the balancing of his job at the White House, Gloria gives him more pressure in the form of accusing him of spending too much time with the presidents and their wives, even going so far to say, in a drunken stupor, that he is getting way too “comfortable” with Jackie Kennedy. In the mix is Terrence Howard’s character, a friend of the Gaines’ who has a thing for Gloria when Cecil isn’t home. Meanwhile, things are spiraling out of control in the world as the decades pass; Cecil’s son Louis finds himself in a pot of hot water when he and his now afro-headed girlfriend are on a “Freedom Riders” bus that is attacked by a group of Klansmen who firebomb the bus and almost leave them for dead. Reeling from the death of his other boy who went off to Vietnam and now dealing with Louis’ anti-society troubles – along with the drunken antics of his own wife – Cecil begins to question the way in which the world is changing. Whitaker, in his rendition of Cecil, narrates the story with a heartfelt conviction and we can almost hear the desperation and tears in his voice and Daniels does a solid job here of portraying the gradual aging of the man and everyone around him; by the time the end of the film arrives, Whitaker is portrayed as a barely-walking hunchbacked old man who has lost nearly all his hair while Winfrey is portrayed similarly as a wrinkled old lady that has to walk around with the assistance of oxygen under her nose. It really gets you thinking about the way in which we age and how fast this process goes; in short, you begin to really feel your own morality and in this way The Butler was a bit saddening.
Cecil Gaines ends up retiring from his job at the White House, much to the dismay of the president he was currently serving and other staff members, and eventually the film fast-forwards to circa 2009 when Obama had won the presidency slot – as I mentioned earlier, this is handled by Daniels in a somewhat biased way in my opinion, leaving the viewer to think of course Gaines would be very pro-Obama based on skin color alone. Indeed, we see Cecil and Gloria sitting on their porch, both old now, with Obama and Biden stickers all over the place, reveling in the fact that Obama is really president. I can’t explain the feeling, but something about Daniels’ tactics here rubbed me the wrong way. We also learn, through a tearjerking scene, that Cecil lost his wife right in their own kitchen when he walked away to get something and came back in to find her slumped over in her chair, the oxygen still in her nose. It would be interesting to research whether this is the way it really happened or if Daniels took some liberties here.
Interestingly, Cecil ends up right where he started in a way as in the final concluding sequence of the film we see Whitaker sitting, as an old widower now, in a chair waiting to be escorted in to personally meet Barack Obama – the same place he sat waiting to go in for his first interview for the butler job. When the young man assigned to walk him in to see the president offers to show him the way, Cecil snaps back ”I know the way…” in a bit of an uplifting final moment.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler was a well-sculpted piece of cinema when all is taken into account – it, quite frighteningly at times, documents a boy’s rise from slavery to nearly living the American dream, especially for a black family in this time period primarily suggested, while in between making us wonder what it would be like to actually serve through all these consecutive presidencies that came and went in Washington. The problem was with much of the casting; I didn’t buy the roles played by the likes of Cusack, Williams or Marsden and while Alan Rickman did his best as Reagan, it was difficult to believe him in the role also. I additionally didn’t care for the “bias slant” Daniels gave the narrative here; it may have just been me, but it had a bit of a racist bite that I didn’t think was appropriate – but please bear in mind this is just my personal opinion.
Is it a buy? Not for us; I couldn’t see sitting through this again, if only for the painful renditions of the different actors playing the presidents through the years as well as the powerfully dramatic reenactments of negative moments in America’s history including race riots, civil rights, Klan atrocities, the murder of Kennedy and Martin Luther King and so on.
[img]http://img2.timeinc.net/ew/i/2013/07/22/The-Butler.jpg[/img]VIDEO QUALITY ANALYSIS: HOW DID THE DISC LOOK?
Though I was given a standard DVD copy to review, from what I read regarding the Blu-ray transfer of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, that variant didn’t fare too well in the video department -- so the DVD I sampled, taking that into consideration, was a “good enough” experience for me. The anamorphic widescreen transfer courtesy of Anchor Bay/Starz in conjunction with The Weinstein Company filled my display with no letterboxing due to its aspect ratio, and in general the disc looked good. While the Blu-ray, according to many media outlets, exhibited some poor elements such as inherent softness and noisy, crushed blacks, the transfer on the DVD didn’t look that bad, at all. Upscaled to 1080p via my OPPO Blu-ray player, The Butler exhibited solid colors, rich blacks, decent shadow detail and didn’t exhibit much, if any, twitchiness or unsteady characteristics so prevalent in DVD releases. You could totally tell this was standard DVD and not high-definition – but it was definitely acceptable and by no means would be a poor choice if one was torn between DVD or Blu-ray for this, or if one only had a DVD player.
[img] http://img2.timeinc.net/ew/i/2013/07/02/The-Butler.jpg[/img]AUDIO QUALITY ANALYSIS: HOW DID THE DISC SOUND?
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 track accompanying The Butler exhibited profound dialogue delivery and a refreshing “in-your-face” characteristic with regard to the front soundstage exhibition, but little else; not really having much to work with in the sonics department, the track stayed mostly confined to the center and main channels with occasional spread to the surrounds during rain sequences or when crowd roars crept into the soundtrack. Occasional rumbles of LFE also wiggled their way in, but this wasn’t anything remotely approaching Jurassic Park III if you get my meaning; the track was, however, completely suitable for the material on hand.