Lee Daniels' The Butler
Director : Lee Daniels
Screenplay : Danny Strong (based on the article “A Butler Well Served by This Election” by Will Haygood)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2013
Stars : Forest Whitaker (Cecil Gaines), Oprah Winfrey (Gloria Gaines), David Oyelowo (Louis Gaines), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Carter Wilson), Lenny Kravitz (James Holloway), Terrence Howard (Howard), Elijah Kelley (Charlie Gaines), Clarence Williams III (Maynard), David Banner (Earl Gaines), Mariah Carey (Hattie Pearl), Vanessa Redgrave (Annabeth Westfall), Robin Williams (Dwight D. Eisenhower), John Cusack (Richard Nixon), James Marsden (John F. Kennedy), Minka Kelly (Jacqueline Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (Lyndon B. Johnson), Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan), Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan)
The awkward-sounding title of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which on the face of it seems indefensibly egotistical given that Daniels has only directed four films of varying quality, is actually the end result of an absurd lawsuit brought by Warner Bros., which claimed rights to the original title The Butler due to their having released an otherwise completely forgotten short comedy of the same name back in 1916. Alas, that is the absurdity of Hollywood, and one could feel bad for Daniels except for the fact that the name change will probably further elevate the director’s stature, which was significantly raised by the controversial, Oscar-winning Precious two years ago. Unfortunately, The Butler is a letdown not quite worthy of all the conflict and turmoil surrounding it; in fact, the lawsuit over the film’s title is actually more interesting than a lot of what transpires in the film itself.
The central character in The Butler is Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a fictionalized version of Eugene Allen, a poor African American whose rise to the position of head butler in the White House over a period of nearly four decades and eight Presidential administrations was chronicled in a 2008 article in The Washington Post. Cecil’s story of transcending an impoverished childhood working in the cotton fields in Georgia and becoming a White House butler anchors the film’s journey through the tumultuous history of the Civil Rights era, beginning with Dwight Eisenhower fretting over the Southern states forcing him to dispatch federal troops to enforce desegregation and ending with the election of Barack Obama, the first black President. In this regard, the film, which was written by Danny Strong, is very much like Forrest Gump (1994), a comparison that Daniels himself has made in various interviews. The comparison, however, is ultimately unfavorable, as The Butler suffers from Forrest Gump’s tendency to simplify the complexities of any given historical moment for the sake of cramming as much history as possible into just over two hours of running time while also lacking a central character as intriguing and enjoyable as Tom Hanks’ titular simpleton.
The primary problem with The Butler is the fact that Cecil is a decidedly uninteresting character. Forrest Whitaker, who won an Oscar a few years ago for his ferocious, frightening performance as the unstable African dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (2008), seems lost in the role of a man whose primary job was to make the room feel empty when he was in it. Whitaker takes that bit of butlery advice too much to heart, as Cecil literally disappears into the historical tapestry, his avowedly apolitical nature denying him any involvement with or impact on anything that is happening. The screenplay attempts to humanize him via his sometimes tumultuous relationship with his proud, boozy, long-suffering wife (Oprah Winfrey, in her first role since 1998’s Beloved) and integrate him into the flow of history by giving him a moment with each of the Presidents he served, usually as a sounding board for each President’s qualms about racial issues (Kennedy admits that he never truly understood the black plight until seeing Civil Rights demonstrators being beaten by police on TV, while Reagan confides in Cecil that he fears he has been on the wrong side of the race issue and history will judge him harshly). However, the familial dramatics are only lukewarm at best, and the Presidential encounters feel like narrative checkmarks, rather than genuine dramatic moments. The point is that Cecil was a largely silent witness to history, but that is a profoundly anti-cinematic and anti-dramatic concept with which to anchor a sprawling historical narrative.
Of greater interest are the subplots involving Cecil’s oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo), who rejects his father’s apolitical approach to life and dives right into the Civil Rights struggle as a young man, becoming a Freedom Rider in the summer of 1964 and risking his life to register black voters in the South before becoming increasingly radicalized, to the point that he briefly joins the Black Panthers (alas, he does not appear to be present at the Black Panther party that Forrest comically interrupts with his protection of Jenny). Louis essentially plays the Jenny role to Cecil’s Forrest, earning the hard knocks of life by actually living it while Cecil stands back and witnesses, which makes one wish that the film had been about Louis instead (and that way they could have avoided the whole title issue by calling it The Butler’s Son). The Butler comes alive every time Louis in on screen, struggling with the often violent opposition to his fervently held ideals and suffering rejection from his father, who sees his being thrown in jail while advocating for equal rights as an embarrassment.
Daniels, who has forged a career on racially tinged provocation as both a producer (Monster’s Ball) and director (Precious, The Paperboy), directs with an eye toward Hollywood-style dignity and reverence, although his more inflammatory nature shines through from time to time, as in his juxtaposition of a lynched black man with the American flag. His penchant for bad taste also ruptures the surface from time to time, particularly in the film’s parade of well-known actors in Presidential drag. While this is arguably a necessary component given the narrative, it is still deeply distracting, almost to the point that you might begin to suspect that Daniels is being purposefully subversive against his own sense righteous propriety. Seeing Robin Williams trying to channel Eisenhower’s righteous anger or John Cusack with a fake nose trying to corral the gruff demeanor of Nixon as both an aspirational Vice President and as a disgraced soon-to-be ex-President pulls us right out of the picture (the same predicament befell Oliver Stone’s misguided Bush biopic W). The stunt casting of Jane Fonda, “Hanoi Jane” herself, as Nancy Reagan, just feels like an unnecessary smirk. The only actor who comes close to disappearing into a Presidential role is Liev Schreiber, whose Lyndon B. Johnson is all tough nails and complete lack of decorum (one scene dramatizes his infamous tendency to hold meetings while on the toilet). Each segment of the film dutifully moves us through the unfolding of history, and Cecil is right there to witness it, but without any real dramatic involvement, it’s hard to think that you wouldn’t be better off (and more entertained) watching a Discover Channel documentary instead.
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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