"Lee Daniels' The Butler" serves up a surprisingly effective history lesson
I walked into "The Butler" expecting a historical drama starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, but much to my surprise, Whitaker and Winfrey were also nowhere to be found. Instead, it was a black-and-white silent short film (a bold maneuver considering modern audiences' desire for the finest in high definition picture and sound) featuring two actors – Davy L. Don and Florence Williams – I had never heard of.
Oh dear, what have I done? I appear to have mixed up "Lee Daniels' The Butler" with "The Butler," the 1916 Warner Bros. silent short film of the same name. After all, who wouldn't considering what a colossal cinematic landmark and cultural touchstone 1916's "The Butler" is. I mean, who hasn't seen the black-and-white silent short (everyone raises their hand)?
That's apparently what the petty children at Warner Bros. thought when they went to the MPAA back in July and forced the historical White House drama to add the director's name to its title, making it "Lee Daniels' The Butler."
The real motive behind Warner Bros.' name game is likely just to mess with the Weinstein-produced film's obvious Oscar hopes. Either that, or somebody at Warner Bros. sincerely believes this new movie aims to cash in on the name recognition of a long-forgotten silent short from almost a century ago that even IMDB barely remembers.
Name drama aside, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" fairly surprised me. The movie appears to have all of the components of inspirational Oscar bait hokum, namely a star-studded cast playing historical figures and simplistic conversations about race in the nation. The final result, however, is something a bit more bitter, raw and in the end compelling. It's not quite the lofty emotional drama it wants to be, but it's much closer to that goal than most skeptics would expect.
Based on the true story of Eugene Allen, Whitaker stars as Cecil Gaines, an African-American butler who worked in the White House for 34 years and eight presidencies. During that time, the country was going through radical change, mainly involving the long, painful fight for racial equality.
From the Eisenhower administration to the Reagans, Cecil watches history – the integration of schools, the Vietnam War, Nixon – unfold from the sidelines. He does so silently, other than a few low-key visits to his boss to ask for raises and kinder hours for the black servants (including Lenny Kravitz and an entertaining Cuba Gooding Jr.). After all, on his first day, his superior tells him "we have no room for politics at the White House."
Cecil's actual house is surprisingly less peaceful. The committed butler's long hours at work leave his wife (Oprah Winfrey) weary and alone, eventually causing her to turn to alcohol and an affair with a sleazy neighbor (Terrence Howard) to pass the time. When Cecil is home, he clashes with his eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo), who abandons his college education to participate in the ongoing civil rights movement.
Louis starts his protesting career with the sit-ins in Nashville, eventually moving onto the Freedom Riders, a run-in with Martin Luther King Jr. and a stint with the increasingly militant Black Panther Party. Along the way, he picks up more and more jail time, which baffles and frustrates Cecil.
The ideological conflict between the two generations serves as the film's core drama, putting father and son against one another and eventually, as the struggle rages on, against their own beliefs.
Cecil quietly earns the respect of his white charges, silently subverting racial stereotypes and preconceptions through his hard work and integrating himself and his family into society. However, when he's invited by Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda, amusingly enough) to be a guest at a fancy dinner late in his career, Cecil sees the hidden sadness in his fellow butlers' faces, suppressing their pain and rage behind practiced smiles and performances. And he knows if he could see himself working, he would see the same weary compliance.
Meanwhile, far from the sheltered luxury of politics, Louis faces the blunt, cruel ugliness of the real world. He sees his father as a subservient Uncle Tom and believes in action, starting with the nonviolent kind but gravitating toward anger as the fight continues with seemingly no progress and no end in sight. As their tactics escalate, however, he too looks at what he's doing and what he's truly achieving.
Director Lee Daniels and writer Danny Strong don't paint with a particularly nuanced brush, but they do bring across the complexities of the fight for equality and the desperate confusion in how it would be won. It's a complicated story that's emotionally complex and satisfying, while also sometimes just entertaining. It's a simple pleasure merely seeing the curtain pulled back on the most famous household in the nation, some of the legendary men who lived in it and the less legendary men who worked in it.
After several movies that portrayed the black experience through white eyes ("The Blind Side," arguably "The Help," etc.), it's nice to see black Americans given a say in their own story.
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" represents one of Forest Whitaker's first serious movies since his 2006 Oscar win (he's mostly done generic-at-best action fare like "Vantage Point" and "Repo Men" since). It's good to see him back. With a role that comes with an accent and goes into old age, it could've been classic Oscar bait: all actorly mannerisms with no real performance. Instead, it's a very soulful turn. Almost every little look he gives hints at so much more (though it often makes the voiceover narration useless, as voiceover narration almost always is).
The rest of the cast is uniformly good as well. Oyelowo is a powerful performer, Oprah is surprisingly effective and Gooding Jr. adds some warm color to his scenes. None of the presidential cameos (Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as Kennedy, a sweaty John Cusack as Nixon) are particularly convincing, but they are amusing. The best is Liev Schreiber as a frantic LBJ, whose crowning moment is barking orders from the toilet.
Despite being billed in the title, Daniels is not a household name. 2009's "Precious" was a critical success, but the director's lurid tendencies – most notably in last year's "The Paperboy," which featured Nicole Kidman peeing on an ailing Zac Efron – have a habit of alienating more than appeasing.
He's more reined in here, but he's still unafraid to hone in on the raw ugliness of racism. Moments like Cecil's plantation childhood – featuring two lynched corpses, the overheard rape of his mother (an unrecognizable Mariah Carey) and the murder of his father – and a vivid recreation of a Nashville sit-in immediately shatter the idea that "Lee Daniels' The Butler" will be mawkish inspiration. Sure, the crowd-pleasing eventually happens, but the varnish is only lightly applied, and it seems more honest since every step forward still seems to come with a step back.
Daniels brings more edge than expected, but it's still a soft edge. The misty visuals and overdone theatrics – such as on an attack on the Freedom Riders' bus – occasionally dull the movie's emotional impact. Strong's script also runs a little long trying to cram in as many significant events without becoming a collection of convenient history lessons. If a significant event happened in American history, a Gaines family member was apparently there.
Which, as many will certainly assume, isn't quite true. Those looking for historical accuracy will be disappointed that large portions of the story are heavily fictionalized and amplified for drama. Disgruntled son Louis is a screenwriter's invention, while their other son Charlie's real-life tour in Vietnam gets a rewrite. Even the titular butler's name has been changed.
The story, however, is still powerful, and if there's one thing "Lee Daniels' The Butler" knows, it's what's in a name anyways.
Theaters and showtimes for Lee Daniels' The Butler
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