Directed by: Lee Daniels.
Written by: Danny Strong based on the article by Wil Haygood.
Starring: Forest Whitaker (Cecil Gaines), Oprah Winfrey (Gloria Gaines), David Oyelowo (Louis Gaines), Terrence Howard (Howard), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Carter Wilson), Lenny Kravitz (James Holloway), Robin Williams (Dwight D. Eisenhower), John Cusack (Richard Nixon), James Marsden (John F. Kennedy), Minka Kelly (Jacqueline Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (Lyndon B. Johnson), Nelsan Ellis (Martin Luther King Jr.), Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan), Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan), Yaya Alafia (Carol Hammie), Elijah Kelley (Charlie Gaines (15-18), Mariah Carey (Hattie Pearl), Alex Pettyfer (Thomas Westfall), Vanessa Redgrave (Annabeth Westfall), Clarence Williams III (Maynard), Jim Gleason (R.D. Warner), Adriane Lenox (Gina), Jesse Williams (James Lawson).
It would be easy to write a sneering, dismissive review of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. That review pretty much writes itself – all one would have to do is complain about how convenient it is that Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker), a longtime White House butler, seems to be in the room with the President every time a key conversation about a Civil Rights issue comes up. Than you could complain about how convenient it is that Cecil’s son, Louis (David Oyelowo) seems to be involved as a protester in whatever Civil Rights organization is in fashion during that administration. Then you complain about the stunt casting of the various Presidents, mock the heavy make-up job that many of these famous actors don in order to play those Presidents (and add a snippy comment about the old age makeup Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey wear near the end of the film). You could then complain about Oprah herself – who is one of the richest women in the world trying to fool by playing this lower-middle class housewife? Then you complain that like all of Lee Daniels’ films – Shadowboxer, Precious and The Paperboy – before it, The Butler engages in too much melodrama – and that Daniels never knows when enough is enough. Add in a condescending comparison to a movie like The Help (2011), and there you go – you have completely dismissed Lee Daniels’ The Butler and can move on to the next film.
It would be easy to do that – and some of those complaints even have merit. Lee Daniels’ The Butler is certainly not a great film. It is kind of like Frank Lloyd’s all but forgotten Cavalcade (1933) in which one family is seemingly at the heart of the every important event for the first 30 years of the 20th Century (that film inexplicably won the Best Picture Oscar in 1933 – and should be seen by everyone who thinks Crash is the worst Best Picture winner – it’s not even close). The parade of famous actors playing Presidents – mostly just for a scene or two – does become comical at times (who the hell thought of Alan Rickman for Ronald Reagan?).
But those who dismiss Lee Daniels’ The Butler are missing what makes it a good – not great, but good – movie, and what makes it different it from films like The Help. While the film is marketed like The Help, the similarities are only surface deep. Like the superior Fruitvale Station from earlier this summer, Lee Daniels’ The Butler lays waste to the silly idea that America is somehow now a “post-racial” society. And unlike The Help, this is not a story about racial oppression that was overthrown with the help of a good white person, who helps the downtrodden maids take revenge on the housewives who employ them. There is not one President portrayed here – everyone from Eisenhower to Reagan (albeit Ford and Carter are just seen in montage) who is portrayed as a hero. Often, even if they do stand up for Civil Rights – they often do so begrudgingly. For example, while Lyndon Johnson does pass the Civil Rights Act, which the film calls the most important piece of Legislation for African Americans since Lincoln freed the slaves, he also uses the word nigger more than any other character in the movie. While Reagan finally sees fit to ensure that the black servants in the White House get paid the same as the white servants, he also refuses to pass any sanctions against South Africa for Apartheid. Even JFK admits that it wasn’t until he saw what the Freedom Riders went through that he had a change of heart. Eisenhower may send it troops to forcefully integrate schools in the South – but he sure doesn’t want to. The movie documents the slow change over time for African Americans – from Cecil’s days as a child working on a cotton farm, where the white farmer could rape his mother, and then kill his father for complaining about it, and get away with it, to the moment when Barack Obama becomes President. That is a remarkable progression – but it doesn’t mean racism is dead, which is something Daniels and his film know all too well.
I realize that I’ve spent most of this review talking about the politics of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and not so much the film itself. That is unavoidable to a certain degree – because whether its Cecil watching the slow progression in the White House, or Louis trying to force change on the streets, the film has a lot to say about politics. Too much in fact – no film can realistically be expected to chart race relations in America from the 1930s to 2008 and do so with much depth. The fact that Daniels’ tries speak to the enormous ambition of the project. The fact that the film works as well as it does is thanks to the great performances he gets from his actors.
Forrest Whitaker has a quiet dignity to him that is perfect for Cecil. It’s almost too bad that his Oscar winning role was for playing Idi Amin – not because he wasn’t brilliant in that movie, but because it is far from a typical Whitaker performance. Whitaker is a large man – and as The Last King of Scotland proved, he can use that size to be terrifying when he wants to. But when I think of Whitaker, I think of his more subtle, gentle performances. In this film, he is required to show a lot of emotions – but often having to hide those emotions from those around him. He is taught that the “room should feel empty when you’re in it” – and he does a great job at doing that, while still making Cecil a complex character. He is matched by Oyelowo, who Daniels’ was foolhardy enough to have play Louis from the time he’s a teenager until he’s middle aged, and who mostly pulls it off. This could not have been an easy role – as often his character has to change from scene to scene for the convenience of the plot - how he goes from working with Martin Luther King in one scene, to be a Black Panther in the next is not explained, but dammit if Oyelowo doesn’t sell it in both scenes. Surprisingly the best performance in the movie may well be by Oprah Winfrey. I’m not going to say she disappears into the role of Gloria, Cecil’s wife, because, well, she is Oprah and that would practically be impossible for her to do. But she’s brilliant in the movie nonetheless – going from proud to drunk to heartbroken, and everything in between, and she never misses a beat. Too often the role of the “wife” of the main character is a throwaway – it isn’t here. The other fine performance come mainly from the other black actors – Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as two other butlers at the White House, Terrence Howard as a slimy neighbor and Clarence Williams III as Cecil’s mentor, who slaps him when he calls himself a “house nigger”.
The parade of “guest stars” as the Presidents are a mixed bag – and to be honest, I’m not sure given the fact that most only have a scene or two if they ever really had a chance to deliver great performances. Some of the performances – particularly Rickman as Ronald Reagan, Robin Williams as Eisenhower and Liev Schreiber as Johnson – seem like stunt casting, where the actors are slathered in makeup, do a passable, SNL level impression, and then move on. I cannot help but think the casting of “Hanoi” Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan was nothing else other than a not-so-subtle “Fuck you” to Republicans, who remember the Reagans with reverence. Marsden probably makes the best impression as JFK – because he isn’t as heavily made up as the rest, and isn’t so much relying on an impression at all, but simply wants to capture that easy charm of JFK – and mostly does it. John Cusack tries valiantly to overcome the fact that there are few actors less suited to play Richard Nixon than he is, and while he doesn’t quite pull it off, I have to admire him for trying so hard. And he is also at the heart of one scene that I cannot get out of my head – when he comes down to the kitchen and talks to Cecil and two other butlers while still Vice President, and asks what they, as “members of the colored community” want. This scene reminded me of Oliver Stone’s Nixon, which portrayed the Nixon as a man who tried so hard to make a good impression; he could not help but make a bad one. A man so power hungry and paranoid, he could never get out of his way.
So yes, it would be easy to dismiss Lee Daniels’ The Butler. I won’t try to convince you that the film is a great movie, because it clearly isn’t. There are “flaws” as movie critics love. But the film is never less than fascinating, even when it doesn’t work. And while on the surface, it may appear that this another film about race relations, which sees everything as more simple than it was, and congratulates the (mostly white) audience for not being racist, the film goes deeper than that. I have to hand it to Daniels. He has now made four films as a director – and only his second, Precious, comes close to being a completely successful movie, and even that film has its fair share of over the top moments and melodrama. His debut, Shadowboxer, was a complete and total mess. The Paperboy from last year was wildly over the top – some of it in a good way, and some of it in an ridiculous way. And now we have The Butler, which again goes over the top in many ways. The man goes for broke every time he makes a film – almost as if he’s worried he may never get to make another one, so he’s got to jam each one with everything he wants to say. Sometimes less is more. But for the films Daniels makes, that certainly is not the case.