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Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013)

The Weinstein Company
Blu-ray Disc Released: 1/14/2014

All Ratings out of




Review by Mike Long, Posted on 1/8/2014

Unless there's something wrong with you, you can tell the difference between a fiction film and a documentary. But, that doesn't mean that a fiction, narrative film can't tell a story from real-life and include facts, events, and people from the real world. It's my opinion that first and foremost movies should entertain us, but that doesn't mean that a film can't include detailed information and actually be educational. The best films in this sub-genre deftly mix drama and reality in such a way that we can learn and not even realize it. Lee Daniels' The Butler wants to be such as film, as it traces several decades in 20th Century America, but it shows that being informative and entertaining at the same time is a great challenge.

Lee Daniels' The Butler follows the life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). Born and raised on a farm in the south, Cecil saw his father murdered at a young age, and took on a job as a servant in the house. He eventually ran away from the farm and traveled north, finding work as a waiter in a hotel. Cecil took the experience learned in this position and moved to Washington, D.C., where he continued hotel work. One day, Cecil was summoned to The White House, where he was offered a job as a butler. Cecil jumps at this opportunity, and his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is equally thrilled. However, they soon learn that the job is very demanding, and while Cecil makes friends with the other butlers, he's at work more than he's at home. Little does Cecil realize that his oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo) has started down the path of political radicalism. As Cecil watches history take place in The White House, the world outside is changing in a dramatic fashion.

The film was suggested by the real-life story of an African-American butler who worked in The White House for decades, serving multiple presidents. Using that idea as a springboard, Screenwriter Danny Strong (Yes, that little guy from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer) has crafted a story which illustrates one man's ascension into a job that he finds very respectable. Truly knowing how hard and cruel life can be, Cecil takes great pride in his work and does his best to follow the rules of work. However, it's not Cecil's work which is the focus of the story. The point here is that Cecil spends much of his time around the most powerful man in the world, where many important decisions are being made, but he doesn't pay much attention to politics. Meanwhile, his son Louis has thrown himself into the growing Civil Rights movement and is willing to go to jail and stand in harm's way in order to make America a better place for African-Americans.

This in undoubtedly a good idea for a movie, but Daniels has no idea how to handle the emotional content of the film. In the end, The Butler feels like a cut-rate version of Forrest Gump. Both films feature fairly simple men from humble backgrounds who are on the sidelines during some of the most important events of the 20th Century. The difference is that Forrest, due to his limited intellect, reacted to these events in a quasi-emotional manner and took many of his cues from those around him. Even when he didn't completely understand, he attempted to take in the significance of each event. Cecil is simply too much of a blank slate. He's told at the outset that he is not to be political in The White House, so he goes about his duties as if he's working in any home. But, he basically acts the same way when he's with his family and the only time we see him show any emotion is when Louis insults Sidney Poitier. Whitaker brings a sort of blissful ignorance to Cecil that makes him inscrutable and thus, he's a terrible catalyst for the audience.

The movie is wildly uneven in tone and scope as well. It's as if Daniels wanted to make two movies -- one about Cecil and one about Louis -- and tried mightily to combine the two. The only thing appealing about Cecil's story are the historical figures he encounters (more on that in a moment). Louis' tale is much broader, as he finds himself at many pivotal events in the Civil Rights movement, such as being a Freedom Rider and working with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, it's almost like Louis is Forrest Gump, as he's the one that is actually at these events. Cecil's homelife also feels like a different movie. There are several scenes in which Cecil's neighbor, Carter (Cuba Gooding Jr.), hits on all of the women in the room, and these simply come off as creepy. Oprah appears to be in her own movie, as she's constantly chewing the scenery.

If you feel that you must see The Butler, the one reason to do so is the cast. I can only imagine that the actors got a call that went something like, "Hey, do you want to be in a movie by the guy who directed Precious?", and said yes without reading the script. I won't delve into the list of impressive names who portray the various presidents and their families, but seeing these people take on famous real-life roles certainly makes The Butler worth a rental. Just don't be surprised when you find the movie around these actors to be disjointed and oddly emotionless. Tracing the history of the Civil Rights movement through one family is a good idea for a film, but this butler needs the day off.

Lee Daniels' The Butler proves that cake < pain on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of The Weinstein Company. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 30 Mbps. The image is sharp and clear, showing no noticeable grain and no defects from the source materials. The colors look very good, and the image is never overly dark or bright. The picture shows a nice amount of depth and the quality of the transfer brings us a very detailed image. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 3.5 Mbps. The protest scenes provide impressive surround sounds, and we can make out individual effects. The stereo effects are good, and nicely detailed. The subwoofer only gets involved in some of the violent scenes.

The Lee Daniels' The Butler Blu-ray Disc contains an assortment of extra features. "Lee Daniels' The Butler: An American Story" (22 minutes) is a making-of featurette which explores the story and the production of the film. We hear a bit about the real-life story which inspired the film (apparently the real-life part was stretched). Through interviews with Daniels, Writer Danny Strong and the cast, we hear about how the story came together and how the characters were approached. The piece looks at the pains which were taken to portray and represent certain real-life events from history. The Disc contains nine DELETED SCENES which run about 21 minutes. "The Original Freedom Riders" (4 minutes) is a brief documentary which tells the real-life story of the activists and features interviews some of the real Freedom Riders. This contains stills from the real events. We get a MUSIC VIDEO for the song "You and I Ain't Nothin' No More" by Gladys Knight and Lenny Kravitz. The final extra is a 5-minute GAG REEL.

Review Copyright 2014 by Mike Long