Title: The Butler
HTS Overall Score:76
Exacting fact or historical fiction? That’s the sticking-point when it comes to director Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a film that tackles American history under the guise of a “based on a true story” banner. Drawn from the life of a longtime White House butler named Eugene Allen, Daniels delivers a historical window into the ugliness of inequality and racism in America’s past, paired with a celebration of the sheer bravery and determination of black Americans to overcome oppression and force social change. Daniels’ Eugene Allen inspired character is named Cecil (Forrest Whitaker). The hitch, however, is that Cecil (along with many of the film’s historical figures) is presented with quite a bit of creative license. From an entertainment perspective this isn’t a problem, however the film has the look and feel of real history with loads of inside-moments that are implied fact, and that’s dangerous. Cecil’s life (including family struggles) is delivered with intimate detail in dramatic fashion; many facts are fictionalized or simply made-up, blurring the lines between truth and fiction. The result is a Forest Gumpian romp through U.S. social history, where the main characters are conveniently tied to major milestone events (and constantly battling issues pertinent to the times). It works, sort of, but it’s fictionalized nature (be it made-up characters or inaccuracies in the characters’ lives) make for a less impressive product; add some mediocre impersonations of major players in U.S. history, and the result is a movie that feels somewhat cheap despite its deep and emotional subject matter.
The film opens with a young Cecil working a plantation cotton field at his father’s (David Banner) side. His happiness is instantly shattered as his mother (Mariah Carey) is brutally raped and his father is heartlessly executed. A woman running the plantation (Vanessa Redgrave) takes pity on Cecil and trains him to be house help. Cecil thrives in the home environment but eventually tears himself away, seeking a new life outside of the South.
Fast forward to the 1950s and Cecil is living in Washington, D.C. with his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and his two children. He’s content working as a butler at a high society establishment and performs his duties exceedingly well. Upon being noticed by a government official, Cecil is offered a job as a White House butler (a job he quickly accepts). Over the years, Cecil’s sons grow older and eventually leave the nest. His oldest son, Lewis (David Oyelowo), goes to school in the South and becomes an exuberant social activist, joining the Freedom Riders, following Martin Luther King, and eventually participating with Black Panthers. His increasingly outspoken views clash with Cecil’s own comfort level and the two become estranged. His other son, Charlie (Elijah Kelley), joins the military and digs his own grave in Vietnam. Meanwhile, Gloria becomes an alcoholic and commits adultery (blaming her life’s troubles on Cecil’s long hours and absence).
The historical depictions (especially those of the Freedom Riders and several of the inside looks at presidential discussions) are intriguing and realistically disturbing. There are often moments where our nation’s history of inequality seems frighteningly recent to modern times; the very nature of cramming sixty years of history into a two hour film lends to a condensed feel, but this works well with the subject matter and helps deliver the film’s race driven message. Daniels further brings the issues to life by intertwining historical footage with movie footage, creating a sense of continuity and realism. The core story of Cecil’s life is also moving and impactful. It’s a rags to riches story that’s all the more impressive because of the racial roadblocks that Cecil encounters throughout his career. Unfortunately, the facts of his existence are twisted and fudged. According to well publicized fact checkers, the depiction of Cecil’s early life on the plantation, the addiction struggles and infidelity of his wife, the existence of an older son, and the loss of a younger son in Vietnam are all fictionalized. Back to the Forest Gump parallel, it’s obvious Daniels relies on these inaccuracies as a way to introduce issues and events of the times into the film. While they do little to teach us about the realities of Eugene Allen and his family, they allow the film to tell a broader story about America’s battle to overcome race related hatred and inequality.
On the acting front, Oprah Winfrey and Forrest Whitaker are simply sensational, with Whitaker delivering a cleverly layered performance (easily one of the best of his career). Winfrey is nearly equal to the task with a multidimensional roll that displays all of her talents, bringing us a character that is painfully troubled and flawed. Unfortunately there’s a precipitous drop-off in acting prowess after Winfrey and Whitaker. The movie’s presidential performances delivered by Robin Williams, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, and James Marsden are head-scratching, weak, and uninspired. All four are outclassed by a brief appearance of Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Better performances (or perhaps, better casting) in this department would have been huge for this film. The roles of supporting actors, such as Cuba Gooding, Jr., aren’t quite as bad, but they certainly aren’t as nuanced or convincing as Winfrey and Whitaker.
PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/news/tb3.jpg[/img]Starz delivers a fairly solid MPEG-4 AVC transfer of The Butler that’s more than serviceable but nothing spectacular. The image typically has cool, crisp, colors that lend to a fairly bright presentation; reds have a tendency to pop and appear somewhat unnatural. Some indoor and dimly lit scenes are dominated by a brownish tint that allows golds and yellows to dominate. Blacks are generally excellent (dark and inky). Dark scenes present with average shadow detail despite some evidence of crush and noise. Fine details (clothing stitching, Forrest Whitaker’s facial details, beads of sweat on Nixon’s face) are all present as one would expect with a Hi-Def presentation, however the image’s overall clarity is a tad soft and muted by the presence of grain. Flesh tones are natural and spot-on for the duration of the film.
There’s nothing particularly frustrating about The Butler’s visual presentation, but it’s lacking a wow factor, landing it in an entirely ordinary place.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/news//tb4.jpg[/img]The Butler’s DTS-HD MA 5.1 presentation is fairly solid for a drama, with a few warts here and there. The film’s moving original score by Rodrigo Leão breathes a welcomed warmth and expansiveness to the audio experience, pushing the front sound stage outward. Surprisingly, the score has a few moments with a strong, louder than to be expected, presence in the rear channels that's a tad too overbearing; it makes dialog difficult to understand. While centered and elevated, dialog is typically a tad thin and harsh (moderator voices are much thicker and more pleasing to the ear). Ambient sounds (such as humming cicadas, birds, thunder, and rain) have moments of brilliance as they inhabit the rear channels. Unfortunately, there are also moments where ambient sounds appear to be relegated to the center channel causing the presentation to sound too narrow.
While LFE doesn’t play a prominent roll in the audio track, there are a few moments (Freedom Bus attack, Vietnam War footage) where a few bass rumbles explode with exuberance. The score also contains a few bass heavy moments.
• Lee Daniels' The Butler: An American Story
• Deleted Scenes
• The Original Freedom Riders
• "You and I Ain't No More" by Gladys Knight (Music Video)
• Gag Reel
The Butler is one of those films that’s good enough to recommend, but flawed enough to fall short of great. At it’s core, the film is about race, oppression, and inequality. Those are weighty issues and The Butler tackles them head-on. The flip-side is Lee Daniels' choice of fudging the real-life facts of former White House butler Eugene Allen. Perhaps I’m making too much of this (others might be willing to overlook this issue), but I would have preferred Daniels to have remained true to Allen’s life. Historical stories, in my opinion, are always more compelling and impactful when told with fact (not fiction). The disc’s presentation attributes are middling (no demo material or jaw dropping moments to report). In addition, the disc’s extras are poor at best. One of the extras is a marathon of gag outtakes captured during filming. Considering the delicate nature and seriousness of the subject matter, these laugh sessions feel out of place. The opportunity for more historically-based extras and add-ons seems almost obvious and would have bolstered the disc's value; opportunity missed!
Despite its issues, The Butler is a movie worth watching. I’d recommend viewing it as a rental first, only adding it to a collection after giving it your own stamp of approval.
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, Cuba Gooding, JR, Jane Fonda, Alan Rickman, Robin Williams
Directed by: Lee Daniels
Written by: Danny Strong, Wil Haygood
Aspect Ratio: 1:85:1
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, French: Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1
Studio: Starz/Anchor Bay
Runtime: 132 minutes
Blu-Ray Release Date: January 14, 2014
Buy The Butler on Blu-ray at Amazon