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'Lee Daniels' The Butler' review: Upsetting for the wrong reasons

*1/2 (out of four)

No matter what you think of “Forrest Gump,” no one would call it in an informative history lesson. It’s slick entertainment—and, in the interest of full disclosure, one of the few films that ever made me cry—but detailed and credible it’s not.

That the condensed history in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” begs comparisons to “Gump” is a huge problem, considering “Butler” comes from a true story and intends to address eight decades of American race relations. The film feels like a 12-year-old’s C- oral presentation on the subject.

Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a White House butler who, much like Mr. Gump, finds himself on the fringes of numerous major incidents in American history. The film is most affecting when documenting the horror of people forced to stand silent in the background while their nation’s elected leaders (such as Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson and John Cusack’s ridiculous impression of Richard Nixon) display blatant racism. Scenes of oppression by violent slave owners and food-throwing Southern racists are, of course, difficult to watch.

Yet offensively adjusted from the story of real-life butler Eugene Allen by first-time feature writer Danny Strong, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” actually dramatizes very little. Cecil provides voiceover for the entire film but almost never enhances our understanding. His commentary includes lines like “I didn’t know if I was going to get home alive” and “I didn’t know that an old man could feel so lost.” When long hours at work cause strife in his marriage to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), in voiceover Cecil says that he can cut back his schedule. So he does. What riveting drama! Especially since at no point is it clear that Cecil cares much about his marriage or is spending all his time at the White House. He’s regarded as the best butler they have, but it’s anyone’s guess why.

Throughout the film, Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo) resents his father’s work and becomes involved in the civil rights era. He joins the Freedom Riders, works with Martin Luther King and becomes a Black Panther. But Daniels hops from one moment to the next with negligent attention to the particulars of history, to the point that each brief stepping stone makes the story feel insensitive, not powerful.

It’s not easy to turn years and years and years of race relations into a two-hour family drama. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” merely delivers some of the civil rights movement’s greatest hits and emphasizes the landmark election of the first black president in a vacuum. Yes, that was great and historic, but sadly society still has a long way to go. It's wrong to suggest otherwise.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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