Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Lee Daniels’ The Butler – so named because of an infantile legal squabble, not because Daniels has directed the biography of his own personal manservant – is not a movie. Instead, it’s two of them: one a sincere melodrama about a father and son with conflicting opinions about the Civil Rights Movement, and the other a sweeping historical outline of the Civil Rights Movement itself. One of those films is a finely acted motion picture that goes on a few scenes longer than it really needed to. The other is a ham-fisted but responsible reminder of how far American society has progressed within a single lifetime, illustrating all the nobility and mistakes that were made along the way.
Both movies are pretty good, I guess.
It’s easy to criticize a film as blunt as The Butler (as it shall be called for the rest of the review), but very difficult to criticize its motives. Danny Strong’s screenplay is finely structured, taking audiences from the horrifying cotton fields of the title character’s youth all the way to the White House, where he accepts the once-unlikely position as the butler to a half dozen successive presidents, from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan. As an often-silent observer to the most powerful – and not for nothing, very white men – in the country, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) observes the slow path to equality made over half a century from the perspective of politicians who, to varying degrees, supported the Civil Rights Movement as best they felt they could, albeit for varying reasons.
Running parallel to most of Cecil’s story is the tale of his own son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who joins the Civil Rights Movement in earnest, sitting in at lunch counters, squaring off against the Ku Klux Klan and eventually sharing a hotel room with Martin Luther King Jr. (a particularly good Nelsan Ellis from “True Blood”) and then joining the Black Panther Party after King’s assassination. Cecil’s experience around lawmakers gives him confidence that the country will right itself without Louis’s involvement, and he fears for his son’s safety on the front lines of social change. Louis’s experience with those who oppose equal rights leads him to resent his father’s willingness to remain at the mercy, not to mention the beck and call, of feet-dragging white politicians whose motivations were at times rather suspect.
Strong’s screenplay often places Cecil and Louis in exactly the right room at exactly the right time to see the 20th Century’s most prominent figures speak dramatically about their values or make history-altering decisions, but Strong mercifully resists the urge to make Louis and Cecil the driving forces in those determinations. The Butler is not the Civil Rights version of Forrest Gump, nor does the film make the mistake of letting Cecil and Louis act as mere witnesses to history. They react visibly and strongly to the events around them, whether or not they are in position to do anything at the time. They are, in their own way, remarkable men making difficult decisions to either act or stand firm in the face of an increasingly undeniable cultural (r)evolution. That they are usually in the right place at the right (or wrong) time is merely a dramatic, sometimes distracting coincidence.
Lee Daniels is, however still Lee Daniels, a none-too-subtle filmmaker with a predilection for injecting sexuality where, perhaps, none was necessary, or at least none needed to be shoved in our faces. On more than one occasion sexual dialogue is suddenly drowned out by a distracting off-camera sound effect, presumably to secure The Butler a PG-13 rating (because no other reason makes any sense whatsoever), so one wonders why he even bothered filming it. What were you thinking, Lee Daniels? No, seriously, why did you think a film obviously destined to be used as a visual aid in high school history classes needed a "wide vagina" joke?
Moreover, in a film that looks sympathetically at all aspects of the Civil Rights Movement – even aspects that other films, critics or casual audiences might find problematic, like Ronald Reagan’s political legacy – was it completely necessary and productive to include gay jokes? Lee Daniels’ The Butler takes audiences all the way from an era when killing black people was effectively legal (provided you were white that is… history was stupid sometimes) to the once-unthinkable day when a black president was elected. And yet, ironically, The Butler still proves we have a long way to go.
That sweeping narrative arc is a big part of The Butler’s value and also a big part of its problem. Whitaker and Oyelowo work wonders establishing an oppositional but sympathetic relationship, developing most of The Butler’s drama on a “will they or won’t they” form of suspense as we wait for their eventual reconciliation (or worse, potential tragedy that could very likely preclude it). The Butler’s conclusion to this personal drama is a masterful one: funny, thoughtful and a meaningful image. The film’s actual conclusion, however, comes several scenes later, just to bring Cecil up to the present when President Barack Obama was first elected.
As a history lesson, that conclusion brings The Butler to a logical end, but as a proper drama, it frustratingly ends well beforehand, and satisfactorily, so the movie just seems to hang around awkwardly a few minutes after it outstays its welcome. The effectively emotional father-son drama (complete with an Oscar-bait alcoholism subplot with Cecil’s wife, played by Oprah Winfrey), captures our hearts but just goes on too long. The other movie, the well-meaning historical drama (complete with Oscar-bait cameos by Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack and Alan Rickman as every President except Carter, for some reason), ends effectively but depended on our emotional investment in the characters in order to avoid feeling episodic, leaving the film’s final few minutes a little dissatisfying.
But while either film in Lee Daniels’ The Butler could be said to lack in one area or another, neither of them is a bad movie by any stretch. Overly earnest, briefly hypocritical, cloyingly characterized at times, yeah, sure, but never “bad.” In fact, thanks to Whitaker’s touching lead performance and a script that keeps the scope of the entire Civil Rights Movement contained to but appropriately dominant in a single movie, The Butler is actually quite good as a simultaneous double feature with itself. It may be shameless Oscar bait… alright, it is shameless Oscar bait… but it does its job. It keeps history neat and tidy and serves the audience well. Lee Daniels’ Lee Daniels’ The Butler buttles.