Friday, January 10, 2014

On Blu-ray & DVD -- Lee Daniels' THE BUTLER

Given the kind of movies filmmaker Lee Daniels has graced us with so far (and I am stating upfront that I am a fan of his work) -- Shadowboxer, Precious and The Paperboy -- could anything have prepared us for his suddenly offering up a mainstream movie as predictable and pedestrian as THE BUTLER?  I admit that the idea of following the progress of America's black population via a single family -- the father of whom served in The White House as butler to eight American Presidents, even as his son grows up amid protests and the Black Power movement -- is an interesting one that would seem to be able to reflect our times while remaining relatively truthful and telling.

The film does this, but in an utterly paint-by-numbers fashion. Not only can you predict just about every moment in the movie prior to its happening, you can also pretty much gauge the kind of performance you'll be seeing from each actor on view -- many of them first-rate and all of them used here for their ability to bring a cliché to further tired life. In the past, Mr. Daniels (shown at left) has worked with clichés, all right, but he's usually turned them on their heads, bounced them black-and-blue, or had his cast barrel through them with such relish (The Paperboy) that they come out the other side. In the 2-hours-and-12-minutes-long The Butler -- with screenplay by Danny Strong from an article (later a book) by journalist Wil Haygood -- these cliches are treated with such reverence that they seem to ossify before our very eyes. This is mainstream movie-making with a vengeance.

As a typical example, let's just take the opening segment in our butler's history, as a boy on the southern plantation -- that's a wasted Vanessa Redgrave above, right -- and compare it to 12 Years a Slave. (I can't tell you how many times now I've heard people who've seen The Butler tell me that --oh, my -- they wouldn't think of sitting through 12 Years.
It's too violent!)

In this cotton-picking episode, our man, remembering his childhood, speaks almost happily of the times in the field with his father. Then we witness, in very quick succession, his mother (Mariah Carey, above, right) being taken off by "Massa" (Alex Pettyfer, above, left) to be raped, and then Massa killing his father right in front of the kid's eyes. Some delightful time in the cotton field.

Granted, movies that cover a long period must telescope, but this is ridiculous and doesn't even, on the face of it, make much sense. If this kind of behavior went on often, the cotton field would be the last place you'd want to your kid to be, but if he had to be there, he'd know to keep his mouth shut and eyes right -- instead of goading his father to act. Compare this to the cotton field of Mr. McQueen's movie, and the erratic, horrible (but utterly specific and frighteningly believable) behavior of Michael Fassbender's Massa. The horror here stems from film-making and performance that point up how utterly subjugated were the blacks to any odd whim (at any given time) of their masters.

The casting of big-name actors in so many roles also makes The Butler an almost constant source of "Oh, look, it's so-and-so!" playing this or that President or first lady."  Jane Fonda (two photos up) does a fine and utterly ironic job, playing Nancy Reagan absolutely straight, while Liev Schreiber (above) does a smart Lyndon Johnson, and James Marsden (below, center), infinitely cuter (and shorter) than JFK, leads the charge as head of the Kennedy White House. All this is fun to watch in a silly-movie kind of way.

The heart of the film must belong to its black family at its center, and here a tamped-down and clammed-up Forest Whitaker (below) takes the title role. Whitaker is always good, but his nearly-one-note performance grows a tad boring. He is meant to know his place and blend into the wallpaper, and he does this a mite too well. And when he finally shows us his sad, inner self, we know all too well what's coming.

Oprah Winfrey, below, gets both glammed-up and glammed-down as his wife, and she has a number of dramatic scenes, played just as you'd expect them to be. It's that kind of movie.

The versatile and hugely talented David Oyelowo (shown below with Yaya Alafia: Compare his work here to that in The Paperboy) as the couple's rebellious elder son provides most of the movie's heat. Everyone does the expected, however, so we can all go home happy and satisfied with how far our country, white and black, has come. Indeed it has, in some ways. But movies this safe and obvious serve the status quo rather than the possibility of real change. 

I am actually pleased to see Mr. Daniels have a big hit on his hands, but I wish it had come in a film of more intelligence and stringency. I hope he'll soon go back to challenging us again, rather than continuing to feed us overly-sugared-with-just-a-pinch-of-salt pablum. The Butler, from The Weintstein Company and released to video via Anchor Bay, hits the streets this coming Tuesday, January 14, on Blu-ray and DVD, for purchase and/or rental.

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