Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013)

Friday, August 16, 2013

Movie Review: Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013)

by Tony Dayoub

You can divide audiences for historical movies into a few categories. Of course, there are those that view them simply as entertainment the way they view all other films. There are people like me, who hope to uncover something new, i.e. Lincoln reframed much of what I knew about my favorite president through the lens of today's politics. Then there are those who simply want what they already believe to be validated by such a movie. It's hard to figure out who Lee Daniels is talking to with Lee Daniels' The Butler (the last time I'll be referring to it by its full, unwieldy and legally imposed title). On the one hand, The Butler is eminently watchable, moving along at a very nimble pace that should appeal to both young audiences ignorant of civil rights history and older audiences wanting to re-experience the history the turbulent times they lived through in a nutshell. But I'm not certain that Daniels is aiming for either constituency.

The way the sprawling story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a black butler in the White House, is cut together, Daniels seems to be addressing those already familiar and supportive of African Americans' struggle for equality. Eliding past only a few presidents' along the way, Daniels makes sure he covers the peak periods of strife in the Civil Rights era from Dwight Eisenhower's (Robin Williams) time in office to the eighties and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman), with significant time in between duly given to JFK (James Marsden), LBJ (Liev Schreiber) and Richard Nixon (John Cusack). Daniels intercuts between Gaines' incremental and personal achievements in advancing equality in his immediate professional vicinity and the riskier leaps and bounds his son Louis (David Oyelowo) rebelliously attempts for his people on a grander scale, first as a Freedom Rider and later as a Black Panther. Sometimes, the parallel storylines converge in fascinating ways, like when Daniels conflates the tradition of Gaines and fellow White House staffers (Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lenny Kravitz and Colman Domingo) preparing for a state dinner with the ritualistic manner in which Louis and his friends stage a sit-in at a Southern drugstore counter.

Other times the contrast being made is strikingly heavy-handed. Gaines and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) have Louis and his girlfriend Carol (Yaya DaCosta) over for dinner and they show up in full Black Power regalia. Fraying nerves soon lead to an explosive, violent outburst. Luridly lit, with most of the framing in extreme and unflattering close-ups, the sequence feels like a bomb thrown into the picture in order to spice things up. Carol belches at the table in protest of social conventions before Louis sneers at his dads occupation as a domestic. Gloria defends her husband, "Everything you are and everything you have is because of that butler... You get that low-class bitch out of my house."

It's clear most of the star-studded cast took part in The Butler not only because it might have something meaningful to say concerning our country's legacy of racism but also because today's actors seldom get the opportunity to play historical figures outside of television anymore. However, while it is wickedly funny to see Daniels poke fun at conservatives by casting the ultra-liberal Jane Fonda as Republican idol Nancy Reagan, the thinking behind giving Cusack the ill-fitting role of Nixon is suspect, which is odd because of Daniels' background as a casting agent. Mainly, it's Daniels' concession to the fact that he is appealing to the broadest audience he can hope for. Indeed, much of The Butler is miscast, and Whitaker's part may be the most thankless. He basically plays a smarter, even further marginalized witness to history than Forrest Gump.

While an attempt was made to enliven things a bit more than the subtle Washington Post tribute which inspired the film, the role of active participant is assigned to Oyelowo's fictional son, leaving Whitaker's Gaines sidelined. Daniels overlooks the significance of Wil Haygood's Post piece, the fact that it glorifies real-life butler Eugene Allen's modest but cumulative success achieved simply by existing and letting the times catch up to him. That's not to say that even the most radical of civil rights activists' contributions weren't of lasting value. But it is disingenuous to make their story that of The Butler's, especially when it fictionalizes the linkage at the expense of the honorable gains made by an actual person. The film's Martin Luther King (Nelsan Ellis) tells Louis he should be proud of his father, arguing that instead of viewing the black domestic as subservient, his hard-working presence in the white household makes him "subversive without even knowing it." In crafting The Butler for everyone, Daniels buries the unvarnished and understated premise that King and the Post's Haygood controversially propose.


Candice Frederick said...

i really don't get the comparison to forrest gump at all. and, while i thought all the presidential cast was mostly meh (except for marsden), i thought whitaker, winfrey and especially oyelowo were terrific. i think daniels has been heavy handed in the past, but i think this is far more sophisticated

Tony Dayoub said...

Even critics who liked THE BUTLER have drawn the comparison between Gaines and Gump: and