After directing the hothouse melodrama The Paperboy and the near-camp Precious, Lee Daniels seemed like the least likely person to take on a period drama/prestige production squarely aimed at Oscar voters and mainstream audiences who think like Oscar voters, but Harvey Weinstein thought otherwise, handing Daniels the directing reins on Lee Daniels’ The Butler (Daniels’ name contractually added to the title after a naming dispute with Warner Bros.), a fictionalized biopic centered on a White House butler, Eugene Allen, who served under seven different administrations from the mid-1950s through the mid-1980s, Republicans and Democrats alike. Lee Daniels’ The Butler changes Allen’s name to Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), the better to give Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong (Game Change) the relative freedom to elevate Gaines from mere historical observer to, on occasion, Forest Gump-like participant in key historical events.
Gaines is not just a man of his backward, regressive times, but in some respects, he’s a man behind the times. His demeanor and deference toward whites and his relative success as a White House butler are, first and foremost, the result of growing up and growing into an adult in the deeply racist South, first in Georgia where he sees his cotton-picking father murdered for quietly challenging a white landowner, Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), and later, when a chance encounter with an elderly African-American man allows him to become a waiter and later a butler in a prestigious Washington, D.C. hotel, the Excelsior. He owes his success in no small part to internalizing an oft-repeated instruction that a “room should feel empty with him in it.” He’s expected to serve and serve quietly, to be unfailingly polite and deferential regardless of the circumstances, and he is.
Strong’s screenplay crudely contrasts Gaines’ hesitant, tentative political development with that of his oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo). When we meet Louis, it’s clear he doesn’t believe in the accommodation-at-all-costs approach of his father or of his father’s generation, but it’s not until he goes away to college to Tennessee’s Fisk University that he begins to become politically active, first joining a student group and learning the ins-and-outs of civil disobedience, then putting those lessons into painful practice when he and several other students protest segregated seating at a diner. He’s roughed up and arrested. It’s the first of many and the cause of a film-long rift between the elder Gaines and his son. Despite his father’s objections, Louis becomes increasingly radical, leaving Martin Luther King Jr.’s (Nelsan Ellis) views and beliefs behind after King’s assassination and joining the Black Panther Party.
The movie’s “Kumbaya” ending is nothing if not disingenuous, a false note among many false notes, a didactic moment among one too many didactic moments.
While Gaines finds himself present at key conversations at the White House concerning civil rights – up to and including a wrong-note confession by John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) of Gaines’ impact on his views – his home life suffers. His other son, Charlie (Elijah Kelley), isn’t the problem, but his perpetually housebound, dissatisfied wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), is. She expresses her dissatisfaction through drinking, smoking, and, eventually, taking up with a neighbor, Howard (Terrence Howard). Her attempts at reconciling Gaines and Louis repeatedly fail. Son and father just can’t get along, let alone understand each other’s radically different experiences and expectations. One attempt sees Gaines playing host to Louis, clad in standard-issue Black Panther attire, and Louis’ girlfriend, Carol Hammie (Yaya DaCosta), a onetime college student-turned-Pam Grier lookalike, complete with an afro three or four times the size of her head, chic clothing, and a leather jacket.
That bit of comedy, intentional or otherwise, is nothing compared to the stunt casting Daniels and the film’s producers used to fill out the presidents and their wives who occupied the White House during Gaines’ tenure there. Besides Marsden as Kennedy, moviegoers can look forward to Robin Williams in a bald cap as Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Cusack in a putty nose as Richard M. Nixon, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson (one scene features Johnson addressing his staff from a toilet), and, after skipping the inconsequential presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter (they’re shown via quick montage filled with video excerpts), Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Rickman takes his Reagan a step beyond mere caricature, hinting at Reagan’s contradictions and complexities.
The film changes Eugene Allen’s name to Cecil Gaines, the better to give Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong the relative freedom to elevate Gaines from mere historical observer to, on occasion, Forest Gump-like participant in key historical events.
Gaines eventually retires from the White House, but rather than end there, Lee Daniels’ The Butler goes on (and on), jumping ahead to the obligatory reconciliation between Gaines and Louis before skipping ahead to Barack Obama winning the 2008 presidential election. Gaines expresses surprise at seeing an African-American man elected to the White House while moviegoers are expected to link arms and sing “Kumbaya” in celebration of the wonderful, post-racial world the civil rights movement helped to usher in. It’s nothing if not disingenuous, a false note among many false notes, a didactic moment among one too many didactic moments, but it’s also symptomatic of Daniels’ and Strong’s simplistic, rudimentary approach to American history. It’s a shame then that Lee Daniels’ The Butler wastes so many fine performances from Whitaker and Winfrey (you read that correctly) to Oyelowo and practically everyone in the supporting cast.
[notification type="star"]60/100 ~ OKAY. Fine performances can’t make up for Lee Daniels’ and Danny Strong’s simplistic, rudimentary approach to American history.[/notification]