It seems hard to believe that the Lee Daniels that directs The Butler in such a stately, bland manner is the same Lee Daniels responsible for the deliriously misguided trash-fest The Paperboy or the in-your-face modern melodrama of Precious - Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. Like him or hate him - and Mr. Daniels is not the kind of director who resides in the middle - at least there was a personality, an energy shining through those films, wildly different in tone as they were. But The Butler, a fictional tale inspired by a true story told by Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood, seems more like the work of a smooth, by-the-numbers Hollywood hack-for-hire, all sanded edges and neatly packaged bromides straight out from the Hallmark Hall of Fame movies of the week or Stanley Kramer's well-meaning but ponderous social pictures of the fifties and sixties.

     Because, essentially, that is what The Butler is: an uplifting, nicely pasteurized look at the struggle for racial equality and civil rights in the United States over the 20th century, as seen through the experience of a black man born in the Deep South in the 1920s that rises to become head butler at the White House for a number of administrations. Danny Strong's script suggests, intriguingly, that Cecil Gaines - a fictional construct loosely based on real-life White House butler Eugene Allen, played with restraint by Forest Whitaker - was somewhere between Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man - someone who is only noticed when required - and the "token black man" trotted out for white people to feel good about themselves, but was as well a truly important stop on the road towards equality. But it does so within a rather conventionally melodramatic episodic structure, allowing some incomprehensibly miscast stars a few blink-and-you'll-miss-me cameos while reducing the history of the struggles for racial equality to a checklist of standard historical melodrama; an overlong pageant that never truly articulates personal and political, History and life, in revelatory or intriguing ways.

     Gaines' presence at the political decisions behind the events, often intercut with the experiences of his activist son Louis (David Oyelowo) on the "other side" of the barricade, quickly becomes the black equivalent of Forrest Gump's presence at the key moments of 20th century American history in Robert Zemeckis' overrated Oscar-winning fantasy. The film thus becomes a sort of fleeting, overlong photo album where events follow events without really ever stopping to explain their importance. Worse, it becomes obvious that Mr. Daniels' heart seems to be a lot more in the personal tale of Gaines and his family - his relationship with long-suffering wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and fellow White House workers James Holloway and Carter Wilson (Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr.), the prickly antagonism with Louis.

     Mr. Whitaker is at his most dignified and stalwart in the title role, but even his serene presence can't help the feeling that The Butler treats its subject as if the only way you could render it for general consumption was as an anonymously non-confrontational glossy prestige drama that mostly lacks the bite and strength Mr. Daniels brought to previous projects. That does not diminish its importance as a starting point to discuss race in the contemporary American society (following on from 2012's wildly successful The Help), but it does lead you to ask why did it have to be so soothingly dull.

Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams
Director: Lee Daniels
Screenplay: Danny Strong, from the Washington Post article by Wil Haygood, "A Butler Well Served by This Election"
Cinematography: Andrew Dunn (colour)
Music: Rodrigo Leão
Designer: Tim Galvin
Costumes: Ruth E. Carter
Editor: Joe Klotz
Producers: Pamela Oas Williams, Laura Ziskin, Mr. Daniels, Buddy Patrick, Cassian Elwes (AI Films and Laura Ziskin Productions in association with Windy Hill Pictures, Follow Through Productions, Salamander Pictures, Pam Williams Productions and IM Global)
USA, 2013, 132 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, August 28th 2013


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