Sometime after the contentious back and forth between mogul Harvey Weinstein and Warner Brothers, arguing over the usage of the title The Butler (WB claimed it reserved the right to the original title based on a 1916 short), Lee Daniels had his name stamped all over the film, and it became Lee Daniels’ The Butler. The name change looks to boost Lee Daniels as a filmmaker. Not that he needed a boost in status. Just a few years ago he made history becoming the second African-American nominated for Best Director (Precious).
For the purpose of this review, I’ll stick with calling it simply The Butler as it was intended.
Here we have a film that promotes itself as being “Inspired by a true story.” Inspired by, based on – doesn’t matter. Such labels give a film project clearance thus allowing for dramatic licensing when it comes to names, facts, and events. However, this story carries with it a merit of truth. There actually was an African-American butler that worked in the White House for many decades. Several in fact. One of those butlers, Eugene Allen, serves as the inspiration – though the film offers no mention of him. Those wanting further information will have to search Google or Wikipedia upon viewing the film (or reading this review).
Allen’s name has been changed to Cecil Gaines as part of a fictionalized screenplay that juxtaposes serving the Commander in Chief with a Cliff’s Notes version of the United States civil rights movement. We get some of the major watershed moments of the era, including lunch-counter sit-ins, Freedom Riders, the Black Panthers, et al. All is well and good if you are looking for a simplistic overview of civil rights in America. Approaching the subject in this manner is a disservice to the viewing audience, however. The Butler has the basic construct of the plight blacks faced in the United States, but it fails at exploring the issues. It sees everything in black and white, and ultimately sticks with the essential moments while whitewashing the details.
To his credit, I do applaud Lee Daniels for scaling down his visual eye to give the picture a simple style, unlike his approach to Precious, which overcompensated and became nothing more but a kaleidoscopic headache, where color hues and threadbare characters and locations collided into each other. Working from a screenplay by Emmy winner Danny Strong (Recount, Game Change) also looked to scale things back. Ultimately, though, the script allows for little introspection in its characters or the changes that are taking place. Considering Strong’s greatest success has come from HBO productions, I have to wonder if The Butler would have been a better production if it were made as a cable mini-series. Then it would have the required time needed to explore the civil rights movement in greater detail.
Instead, every major tragedy or development that occurs is telegraphed and later served with heavy-handedness as if this was a Lifetime movie. Not helping is the casting of recognizable celebs in roles as U.S. Presidents – Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, and so on. Since the parts are thinly written, the casting comes off as nothing more than a gimmick.
But the biggest gimmick may be Oprah Winfrey in the cast. From interview excerpts I’ve read, Winfrey never wanted to be in Lee Daniels’ film. When he approached her for Precious, she turned it down, noting a problem with the writing, characters. As a consolation prize she lent her name, as did Tyler Perry, for the marketing of the film. Something must have changed with The Butler because now Oprah was more than willing to board the project, even if it meant playing a character that spends the better part of the film with a cigarette in her hand and a bottle of gin nearby.
Her presence almost takes away from Forest Whitaker’s understated performance as Cecil Gaines, who is the most affecting character in The Butler.
In terms of narrative we begin in 1920s’ rural Georgia with a young Cecil baring witness to the gunshot death of his father by a racist landowner after he raped his mother in a vacant shed. The landowner’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave) as a means of benevolence (pity?) takes the boy in to train Cecil as a serviceable domestic. (She uses the term “house nigger” to describe this new profession – it’s a phrase that would be used throughout the film. It’s not to the extent of Django Unchained and its wildly loquacious characters, but enough to send reverberations in certain context.)
Leaving the Georgia plantation Gaines’s journey leads him to North Carolina where he gets more refinement in the domesticated arts by a hotel butler (Clarence Williams III) before eventually ending up at the White House as part of its staff.
Gaines does his job and does it well, never speaking unless spoken to and keeping any political discourse to himself. (“We have no tolerance for politics at the White House,” Gaines is told upon his introduction to the job.) If he has any resentment, Gaines falls back on the advice he adhered to when he began employment as a domestic: “The room should feel empty when you’re in it.”
Of course, serving under a number of presidents for a number of years, Gaines gains their trust and slowly breaks down the barriers of race and racism. His eldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), views him as an Uncle Tom and rebels against father Cecil’s butler ways by becoming a Freedom Rider, then a Black Panther. To counteract Louis’s rebelliousness, his younger brother, Charlie (Elijah Kelley), enlists in the army to serve in Vietnam. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the brother that fights for his country is the one who perishes, while the brother that fights against his country becomes hardened having survived skirmishes with the KKK and other racists.
The Butler, sadly, is an uninvolving drama. With the exception of Whitaker’s performance the film only has two other remarkable moments. The first involves Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. extolling to Louis that he need not be overly critical of his father, pointing out that black domestics have done their fair share in their struggle for racial equality. The other scene is a Thanksgiving Day dinner with a homecoming for Louis – now all dressed in black leather with a Black Panther girlfriend that is outacted by her massive Afro – who gets into a debate with dad over the merits of Sidney Poitier as an actor, finding him to be another Uncle Tom. In the Heat of the Night is fantasy fulfillment for white folks, Louis believes. Apparently, Louis forgot the scene where Poitier slaps a white plantation owner, a scene that is one of the most famous in cinema’s history. Mr. Tibbs (Poitier) an Uncle Tom? No way.
Had Danny Strong written more scenes like this, and had Lee Daniels kept the stunt-casting to a minimum, The Butler would have been a much better film. Instead, it’s a drama that tries too hard to be for your consideration in the Oscar race.
Director: Lee Daniels
Writer(s): Danny Strong
Notable Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Daivd Oyelowo, Elijah Kelley, Clarence Williams III, Vanessa Redgrave, Robin Williams, Live Schreiber, John Cusack, James Marsden, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Minka Kelly