Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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As a young man, Cecil Gaines is told that black people need to have two faces–their real one, and the one they show to white people. That is the spine of a film with the unwieldy title Lee Daniels’ The Butler (so named not because of Daniels’ vanity but legal issues). This is a powerfully moving film that fights with itself–is it a gritty look at the transformation of black America during the civil rights movement, or is it a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie with stunt casting?

I think the former eventually wins, and The Butler is a good movie, but it does constantly undermine itself with its often bizarre scenes set in the White House. Cecil Gaines, played as an adult by Forest Whitaker, will land a job there as a butler, spending thirty years under various administrations. Heeding the advice he got, he goes along to get along, remaining silent as the fate of his people are debated by presidents and their advisers.

His son, though (played excellent by David Oyelowo) wants to present only one face. He goes to college, becomes radicalized and becomes a freedom rider and then a Black Panther. This enrages his father, and the two do not speak for years. Their reconciliation at the end of the picture is very moving, and made me forget any of the gripes I had up until then.

If the film had been simply about the two men, it would have been a lot better. Frankly, the White House stuff is the least interesting, not helped by casting well-known actors as the presidents. Only James Marsden, as Kennedy, looks and acts like the man he plays. It’s a toss up as to whether John Cusack as Nixon or Alan Rickman as Reagan are more egregiously awful. The presidents are all kind to the black staff (though LBJ still calls them n*ggers) and Reagan, even while gutting civil rights legislation, expresses doubts to Gaines. I question that Ronald Reagan ever had moments of self-doubt or introspection.

What works is the arc of Oyelowo, even if he seems to be at all the key moments in civil rights history (did he really have to be in Memphis for King’s assassination?) A scene that intercuts between the staff preparing for a White House dinner and Oyelowo and compatriots sitting in at a diner is extremely effective. Another scene, in which he arrives for a family dinner in Black Panther regalia (his girlfriend, Yaya DaCosta, has a mighty ‘fro) that erupts in an argument over Sidney Poitier rings true (my father and grandfather once had a blow-up argument that was about baseball manager Billy Martin).

Also well done are the early scenes, when Cecil is a young boy on a cotton plantation. Slavery has been over for several generations, but black people have little freedom, and Cecil watches as his father is gunned down after daring to say “Hey,” to his boss after the white man raped his wife (played silently by Mariah Carey).

Daniels, who can go indulge in some crazy whims, keeps it relatively straight here. The performances by the principles, which include Oprah Winfrey as Whitaker’s wife and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as another butler, are fine, but I found Whitaker to be problematic, as I never felt he had a true bead on the man. He saw horrors as a young man, found success in a white man’s world, but also recognized injustices (he constantly fights for equal pay with the white staff) but I didn’t find the performance or the script ever really revealed what made the man tick.

Still, this film got to me and I recommend it.

My grade for Lee Daniels’ The Butler: B.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

One response »

  1. I suppose I’ll surprise no one by saying that I liked it less than you. I think you’re right about Whitaker’s performance, although I’d shift the blame to the filmmakers instead, because I don’t think they had any real idea what they were doing. Daniels did this with Precious, also – he just throws whatever he can on the screen without having any sensitivity or insight or thoughtfulness about it one way or the other. He’s a bit of a huckster, I think.

    When all is said and done, I think the movie was extremely condescending to both Cecil and Louis. The filmmakers give lip service to Cecil’s dignity but ultimately pull it out from under him, and in the end he can only redeem himself by quitting his job and accepting that his son was right all along. Meanwhile, Louis is exactly what the script needs him to be at every step of the way – a nonviolent protester at one point, an unforgivably cartoonish Black Panther stereotype the next (seriously, he and his girlfriend are straight out of an Austin Powers movie during that dinner scene). By making him a symbol of the civil rights movement, the film trivializes that movement by reducing his character to a series of banal plot points.

    I really hated that postscript dedicating the film to all those who fought for the civil rights movement, because it pointedly excluded the “black domestics” that MLK himself was shown sticking up for; Cecil had already renounced that position to the film’s full approval. But I feel the same way about this that I did about some of the complaints about The Help – there’s nothing at all progressive about looking down on people who worked those jobs. It’s an insult to them to trivialize the roles that they played or the part they had in society. Sometimes it feels like people want to disappear their contributions, in the name of correcting injustice, but that feels backwards to me. They don’t need whites to look back and retrospectively label them as Uncle Toms any more than they needed black militants to slap that label on them in the first place.

    Daniels also makes a bunch of bad choices in other, more mundane ways. I don’t see the point of making Oprah’s character a boozy cheater, except that it gives something for Oprah to do to get noticed by the Academy. That montage mentioned in this review crosscutting between the White House dinner and the sit-in is provocative, but to no real end except that it seems like a fancy thing to do (I don’t think Daniels says anything coherent in juxtaposing those two events). There was no reason for Nixon to be in the film, on a basic structural storytelling level, but I guess it gave an actor a chance to do a Nixon impersonation, so why not? Besides being a rather thoughtless filmmaker, Daniels is also a rather lazy and undisciplined one.

    To sum up … hard to see this as anything more than a naked Awards grab. It reeks of cynicism and soullessness. Daniels might be the devil.

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