Lee Daniels' The Butler

Lee Daniels' latest effort, after the Oscar winning "Precious" and the not-seen in Singapore's "The Paperboy", is a history film disguised under an Oscar-baiting sheen. But like History, in whatever context, perspective is key, and here, we end up with a rather schizophrenic movie: a distinctively White voice in a Black-handed movie. Through all that mess, the one bright, Best Supporting Actress spark is Oprah Winfrey. She brought a strong intensity interlaced with a feminine fragility in the one character that had any consistency amid the two male leads who were painted in broad strokes and had broad, sweeping changes which were barely touched on by the narrative. Yes, Winfrey's character may not have any "character growth" or "development" but at least she was arresting at what and who Gloria Gaines was; Forest Whitaker is a terrific actor and he did his best with what was given to him. The biggest problem laid with Danny Strong's script. It covered such a wide time-span but majority of the show was focused on a particularly short period, and in that period, both Whitaker's and David Oyelowo's characters had no character development. They were essentially one-dimensional portrayals of two sides of a coin. They were clean, dry and factual. Then, towards the end, time sped up and wham! a moment of clarity, a life-changing experience, and we dealt with that for barely 15 minutes and are supposed to accept some drastic character change. This would have been great for another HBO-esque mini-series, but I guess Strong got bored of winning Emmys. Now, it just ended up as being another excuse for a movie to pile on as many famous names on its poster and marquees as possible. That being said, most of these big names did work, albeit in their small roles: Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Jane Fonda and Alan Rickman. The others not so much. The main supporting casts like Cuba Gooding Jr, Lenny Kravitz and Terence Howard were not terribly memorable (although Howard did give out a rather intense skeevy vibe).  The soundtrack was melodramatic and suited the mood of the show, however, it was too blatantly obvious a tool to manipulate the audience's emotion, also a pity they did not get Mariah Carey (who was on in the first 5 minutes) to do a (Gospel) song for the show. Throughout the show, we get a rather factual depiction of the racial situation in US in the past, the one outstanding scene was an early-years demonstration/sit-in. Subsequently, though it became rather dry and cold. And since, as foresaid, there was barely any character development at that time, it did feel like watching a History film. The White voice comes from the feeling that no blame is ever laid on the whites. The film daftly waylaid assigning blame for the situations, and on top of it, goes out of the way to show the empathy of the Big White Man (aka POTUS). But being "politically correct" they had to throw Nixon into the mix and under the bus. Similarly, the movie also obviously skipped out on Malcom X, Bloody Sunday and Martin Luther King's speeches, instead we have Eisenhower's, JFK's and Reagen's TV moments. And throughout all that, we know this is a Lee Daniels' movie, so what is this black man trying to show? If this is not a movie about Racism, then is it a movie about a butler? If so, why do we not feel like we know this butler anymore in the end then in the beginning? If this show is about exploring a Father/Son dynamics, then why do I not care that they grew apart, or got back together? If this show is a Family drama set against a backdrop of the civil rights movement, then where is the drama? And why is the civil rights movement more front and centre than the Family? If this show is about America, what about America is it trying to highlight? It lost a great opportunity when the show's MLK said how the butlers are bringing about change in the country through not their subserviency but through subversion. Fruitvale Station was a more complex and more provoking study of racism in America.


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