The father and son relationship at the heart of Lee Daniels' The Butler nearly eclipses the story proper, which concerns African-American Cecil Gaines, a longtime White House butler who served during eight administrations over 34 years. I do not mean this as a criticism, as the divide between moderate Gaines and his activist son, Louis, anchors this mostly successful historical drama with genuine emotion. Forest Whitaker is excellent as Cecil, taking a role that could have been overly showy with a lesser actor and playing it with compassion and subtlety. Oprah Winfrey is similarly good as Cecil's wife, Gloria, in one of the most misunderstood performances in recent memory. Director Daniels hits most of the right dramatic notes, retaining the intense interpersonal drama of his Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire but foregoing the bizarre pulp of The Paperboy. The film is not a documentary - many events are dramatized or altered completely - and The Butler has a tendency to move from one historical signpost to the next without exploring the climate between beyond a surface level. Even so, this is an entertaining, nicely acted portrait of a man who saw America changing for the better from behind the scenes.
The film is based on a 2008 Washington Post article, "A Butler Well Served by This Election," by Wil Haygood (who later expanded the story into a novel, "The Butler: A Witness to History"), and the real man, Eugene Allen, died in 2010. That article recounted that Allen and his wife, Helene, planned to vote for Barack Obama together in the 2008 presidential election but Helene died just prior to Election Day. The Butler is definitely a work of fiction, as it only uses the essence of Allen's story as inspiration for its narrative, which runs off a script by Danny Strong. The film's young Cecil sees his mother (Mariah Carey) raped by a violent slave owner (Alex Pettyfer), who in turn murders the boy's father (David Banner) for defending his wife's honor. Cecil later works as a butler at a fancy Washington, D.C., hotel, which lands him a position in Dwight D. Eisenhower's White house in 1957. There, he begins a decades-long career as White House butler, which both affords him a sideline view of a country in turmoil and takes a heavy toll on his ability to lead his own family.
The tour-de-history in The Butler is interesting in a high school history class kind of way. The Civil Rights Movement is a constant topic, as is the Vietnam War and the bourgeoning role of women and African Americans in society. Dramatically, The Butler is a bit overstuffed, but the film is about its leading man and not each individual president and historical event mentioned. The most interesting scenes for me involve Cecil and Louis (David Oyelowo), who share a fractured relationship from the get-go. Cecil believes the country is slowly moving toward equality for blacks and preaches patience and tolerance. Louis joins the Black Panthers and stages sit-ins and protests, which earns him black eyes, weeks in jail and the disapproval of his father. Gaines matriarch Gloria (Winfrey) is positioned between the two men and serves as their only link for most of the film. This strain, coupled with Cecil's status as absentee husband and father, drives her to drink, and Gloria is a functioning alcoholic during most of her sons' childhoods. In these scenes of family drama it becomes clear that Cecil's devotion to his work and perch amid numerous administrations do not allow him to spend enough time positively influencing his own family.
The film may not always be successful in its explorations of history, but the domestic commentary is usually spot on. We see and hear about important Civil Rights era developments through the experiences of Louis, Gloria and Cecil, and the Gaines family often spars with friends Howard (Terrence Howard) and Gina (Adriane Lenox) during spirited social and political debates. Most of this material is fictional, but the players do an excellent job selling the drama and making the audience believe these are real people living during turbulent times. The key cast is strong, particularly Whitaker, but some critics and viewers seem to have missed the fact that Winfrey's Gloria spends long stretches of The Butler drunk. Winfrey does an excellent job teetering between sobriety and despair, and Gloria has more than a few moments of redemption while repairing her family. Oyelowo is excellent as Louis, and Elijah Kelley does a nice job in the smaller role of younger Gaines son Charlie. Cuba Gooding Jr. steals scenes as a crude fellow butler, and Robin Williams gets a few chuckles as President Eisenhower. Rotating players James Marsden, Jane Fonda, Liev Schreiber and John Cusack do not have enough scenes to be truly memorable. Running just over two hours, The Butler is never boring, and I very much enjoyed the film's exploration of Cecil as an imperfect father and husband. The film tackles some difficult events in recent American history - some more successfully than others - and is a mostly successful historical drama.
The 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image from Anchor Bay is imperfect but mostly good, much like the film itself. The film features period-appropriate mise-en-scène and lighting, and much of The Butler has a warm, soft appearance by design. Detail is adequate but texture and clarity are not as pristine as HD enthusiasts might expect, though I suspect much of this is intentional. Colors are often bold and nicely saturated, and skin tones are accurate. Black levels are mediocre: blacks are downright inky but black crush is often apparent. I noticed no big issues with aliasing or noise reduction, and the transfer likely replicates the theatrical experience.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is subtly effective. This is a dialogue heavy film, and said dialogue is presented in perfectly clarity, whether delivered from the center channel or directionally through the surround speakers. There are a few action effects, but the surrounds and subwoofer mostly support ambient effects and score. All elements are layered appropriately, and the overall clarity is good. Spanish and French 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes are also included, as are English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc "combo pack" includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy of the film, and an UltraViolet HD digital copy. The discs are packed in a standard Blu-ray case, which is wrapped in a matching slipcover. Lee Daniels' The Butler: An American Story (22:04/HD) is a brief but informative documentary about the production, and The Original Freedom Riders (3:52/HD) features comments from real-life participants on the Freedom Bus ride. There are a number of Deleted Scenes (21:07/HD), as well as a Gag Reel (5:12/HD) and the "You and I Ain't Nothin' No More" Music Video by Lenny Kravitz and Gladys Knight (2:22/HD).
Although Lee Daniels' The Butler is only loosely inspired by the life of Eugene Allen, who served as White House butler during eight presidential administrations, it features strong performances by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey and a compelling dramatic arc about a father and son with differing approaches to Civil Rights advocacy. Anchor Bay's Blu-ray features acceptable picture and sound and a few bonus features. On the strength of the film, Lee Daniels' The Butler is Highly Recommended.