Can a movie have its heart in the right place and still turn out to be a disappointment? That's the case with 'Lee Daniels' The Butler', which wants to tell a serious story about racism in the 20th century as seen through the eyes of (mostly fictional) White House butler Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker), but in doing so would have viewers believe that virtually every white person in America during that time period was an African-American-hating bigot.
The film is based ever so loosely on the real-life story of Eugene Allen, who served in the White House for 34 years, starting with the Truman Administration and ending with the Reagan one. Sadly, that's where most of the similarities between Allen and the fictional Gaines end, as instead of attempting to tell Allen's real story, writer Danny Strong (who wrote the much better, but also more comedic made-for-HBO movies 'Recount' and Game Change) instead gives Gaines an almost Forrest Gump-like journey through the Civil Rights Era, that makes him either a witness to conversations in the White House about events, or puts one of his two sons (the real-life Allen only had one) in the middle of them.
The movie opens with a flashback to Gaines' childhood, that establishes what kind of view the movie is going to take in just a few minutes. Gaines is a young boy working (assumingly as an indentured servant, although the practice was outlawed in 1917 and this movie's flashback is to 1927) in a cotton field when one of the plantation owners comes to get his mother to take her back to a shed and rape her, then returns to murder his father when he tries to stand up to the owner. Young Cecil is brought by the matriarch of the plantation into the house to teach him how to become a house servant (the term she uses for it, of course, is racist). After several years, Cecil escapes and – unable to find work and hungry – breaks into a shop to steal some cake. He's caught by a worker (played by Clarence Williams III), who agrees to hire him and begins to teach him the finer aspects of serving. It isn't long before Cecil is working at one of the reputable hotels, from which he eventually gets an offer to work on the serving staff at the White House.
It's during those White House years that 'The Butler' becomes the most interesting, as Cecil meets (and, yes, occasionally has conversations with) a string of Presidents, starting with Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams, whose makeup honestly makes him look more like Truman than Eisenhower) and ending with Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman, whose makeup is nearly perfect, although Rickman's British accent seeps through occasionally). The movie's problem with its presidential portrayals, however, is in the fact that almost all the Presidents are seen as either complete or borderline racists. As you can probably guess, John Kennedy (played by James Marsden) comes off as the best of the lot, and Nixon (played by John Cusack) as the worst, but there's a lot of revisionist history going on here. Kennedy is portrayed as someone who doesn't care about the plight of African Americans until after he sees some of the things happening to them in the Deep South; while Nixon is seen as someone who merely panders to them for votes. In perhaps the most offensive of Presidential portrayals in the movie, Ronald Reagan is accused of being racist for wanting to lift sanctions against the apartheid government in South Africa – when the real reason for Reagan wanting to lift sanctions was because they were harmful to the very poorest citizens of South Africa – primarily those of black descent. The movie also oddly glosses over the Presidency of Jimmy Carter, I'm guessing because he was both a Christian and from the Deep South (Georgia) and this movie would like viewers to believe that there were no decent white Southerners in America during this time period. I'm sure it won't shock anyone that the movie treats Barack Obama as nothing less than the 'Messiah' when it comes to the African American community, although one could argue that Bill Clinton (not even mentioned in the film) did more in his term to improve race relations and diversity.
For all that 'The Butler' gets wrong, however, it does do a good job of trying to show the oppression of African Americans in the United States, and does so strongly with some very intense and emotional scenes showing a 'Freedom Bus' being attacked by Klansmen, as well as a group of protestors being humiliated when they try to sit in the 'white' section of a southern restaurant. While Cecil is mainly an observer in the film, it puts his older son, Louis (David Oyelowo), in the middle of the action by first making him a college protestor, then later a member of the Black Panthers.
While I had issues with the way the story was presented, there's no arguing that the performances here range from good to really good. Forest Whitaker is solid (as always) in the lead, and while I've never been a huge fan of Oprah Winfrey (as an actress, that is), she's decent enough playing Cecil's wife, Gloria. Heck, even Cuba Gooding, Jr. is enjoyable to watch as Cecil's co-worker, Carter – and when was the last time Cuba was memorable in anything? The Presidential portrayals are hit-or-miss throughout. Marsden is the best of the lot as Kennedy, while Robin Williams and John Cusack give good performances, but don't seem anything like the Presidents they are playing. Schreiber and Rickman are basically doing impressions, but both prove interesting to watch.
In any other year, I might be less critical of 'The Butler', since it does want to shine a light on America's recent history of racism. But in a year in which Hollywood has given us much more moving (not to mention accurate) films about race ('12 Years a Slave', Fruitvale Station, and 42 immediately pop to mind), it's hard to endorse a movie that gets as much wrong as it gets right.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Lee Daniels' The Butler' is served up on Blu-ray in a combo pack that includes the DVD version of the movie along with an insert containing a code for an UltraViolet version of the film. The discs are housed in a standard Elite keepcase, with the DVD on the left and the Blu-ray on the right. A slipcover matching the slick slides overtop.
Both the Blu-ray and the DVD are front-loaded with trailers for Fruitvale Station (which is oddly in SD instead of HD on the Blu-ray) and 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom'. The Blu-ray menu consists of a video montage of scenes from the movie, with selections running along the bottom of the screen.
Although far from horrible, the video quality of 'The Butler' does have a number of notable issues. The movie's color scheme is quite over-saturated and 'warm', which creates a lot of soft imagery, especially in scenes that are shot indoors and/or at night. It also looks like the cinematographer may have used filters (or possibly different film stock) in some scenes that he did not use in others, as grain is sometimes evident and sometimes not, as is clarity. I suppose given the time range of the movie, the intent is to give some scenes a historical feel to them and some a more modern feel, but it sure made for an uneven viewing experience.
In addition to the softness of many scenes (which don't look much better than DVD, to be honest), black levels are, for the most part, pretty poor, with noticeable instances of crush throughout. Contrast, on the other hand, is fairly solid, although fleshtones depend on how oversaturated the scene might be. Details also vary, as many daylight exteriors have a noticeable clarity and 'pop' to them, while other scenes (again, mostly indoor instances) appear flat and murky.
All that said, I detected no real issues with artifacting, banding, or other frequently seen issues. Since I didn't see 'The Butler' in theaters, it's hard for me to determine how much of the above is filmmaker intent and how much is related to the transfer, but given the lack of other issues, I'm leaning on the side of intent. Even with that in mind, it's hard not to be somewhat disappointed by the look of 'The Butler' in HD.
Thankfully, there's less inconsistency with the audio, as the disc provides a solid – if unspectacular – English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Although there are a few action sequences in 'The Butler' (the most notable being the Freedom Rider bus scene), this is primarily a 'talking' movie – with a big chunk of the film just involving the Gaines family sitting around talking about their lives and political events. Therefore, much of the audio presentation isn't always as active, as dialogue is almost exclusively front and center. However, rear activity is noticeable during the more active scenes (such as the bus sequence), although directionality is less evident, so the movie never gives one that 'immersive' quality that so many excellent lossless tracks have.
There are no noticeable glitches or dropouts in the audio, and the dialogue is properly balanced with both the score and background noises. In addition to the lossless 5.1 track, Dolby 5.1 tracks in both French and Spanish have also been provided. Subtitles are available in English SDH and Spanish.
As a student of history, as well as a political junkie, I was both surprised and disappointed at how 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' turned out. I can forgive the movie for fictionalizing most of the events in Gaines family life and career for purposes of the movie (one of the reasons they didn't use Eugene Allen's real name), but what really got under my skin was how the movie portrayed its real-life historical events, as it paints almost every non-African American (including the majority of U.S. Presidents) as either complete or marginal racists. There are so many other films this year that tackle the topic of racism in a much more accurate and balanced matter, that I can only recommend this movie for a rental.