Director: Lee Daniels
Writer: Danny Strong (screenplay), Wil Haygood (book)
Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Release date: August 16th, 2013
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Running time: 132 minutes
Best part: The dynamic performances.
Worst part: Its over-sentimentality.
Over the past five years, writer/director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) has garnered critical acclaim and scarily negative hype simultaneously. The bad-boy of Hollywood’s undercover existence bounced back from his disastrous antics to deliver polarising and increasingly bizarre dramas. Biting off more than he can chew each time, his efforts make critics and filmgoers squirm in their comfortable seats. Daniels’ latest feature, The Butler, is as outlandish, proud, and confident as he is. Unfortunately, this dense drama fails to live up to its unique reputation. Despite being as patriotic as baseball and apple pie, The Butler will be overshadowed by seemingly more engaging and informative dramas on the horizon.
With the monumental task of telling this harrowing and inspirational story within a two-hour limit, Daniels swings for the fences. Unfortunately, the final product’s failure overshadows the commendable technique. This conquering tale loosely chronicles long-standing White House butler and working-class hero Eugene Allen’s life. His name, despite being changed to ‘Cecil Gaines’ here, will undoubtedly live longer than this sappy drama. Cecil (Forest Whitaker), after Barack Obama’s historic inauguration, longingly reflects upon his momentous life and eight-Presidency stint in the White House. The story then travels back to a horrific time in African-American history. The Gaines family, trawling the cotton fields as instructed by nasty plantation owner Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer) and his gracious elderly relative Annabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), is shockingly torn apart. With his mother raped and father murdered in front of him, Cecil fights off his burgeoning anger. Stepping out into the world, the teenage Cecil refines his skills as a servant thanks to Maynard (Clarence Williams III). With wealthy white people looking down upon him, Cecil bravely holds his reserve. Called up to the White House during his adult years, Cecil, supported by his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and co-workers Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz), juggles his work-life and difficult husband-and-father duties. Cecil’s troublesome son Louis (David Oyelowo), convinced African-American citizens can forcefully obtain white peoples’ rights and privileges, lashes out at Cecil’s submissiveness. Cecil, refusing to turn his back on any family member or President (including John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) and Richard Nixon (John Cusack)), becomes a substantial link between the African-American community and US Government.
Undoubtedly, Allen’s story is poignant, powerful, and relevant. Anyone who has picked up a textbook or turned on a TV would know at least one titbit about white peoples’ treatment of minorities throughout history. History cannot be erased or ignored. Civil Rights era stories, like Allen’s, illustrated the contrast between those who scrounged for survival and those who did as they pleased. The Butler, despite its good intentions, struggles to tap into this story’s irreverence and potency. Daniels, despite having the spiritual and political motivation to tell this confronting story, struggles to capture it’s raw and conquering potential. Unfortunately, Daniels presents this intricate narrative in a cliched, TV movie fashion. He fails to capture the scope, historical importance, and defining traits of this bleak time. Instead, he emphasises the material’s saccharine and manipulative aspects – turning what should’ve been a thought-provoking character study into heavy-handed Oscar bait. Aiming for the heartstrings, this simplistic drama refuses to relish in its opportunities. The narrative, though interesting, struggles to delve deep enough into its all-important themes and intriguing characters. As, essentially, the neglected love child of Forrest Gump and Driving Miss Daisy, The Butler quickly becomes as inconsistent and emotionally distant as The Help. However, like The Help, The Butler directly throws the audience into this horrifying era of American history. The stench of bigotry, cynicism, and discrimination is ever present throughout this beguiling drama.
Despite its flaws, important moments are highlighted and lodged in the memory banks. Presenting several recognisable faces and historical events throughout its exhaustive run-time, the Ku Klux Klan attack on Freedom Writers in Alabama, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Black Panther Party’s rise are sparingly touched upon. Daniels, hurriedly skipping from one important incident and person to another, refuses to reflect upon these meaningful historical moments. The movie’s repetitive structure and uninspired plotting, emphasised by Cecil’s heart-to-heart chats with several influential Presidents, sugarcoat the link between the African-American community and Leader of the Free World. Hokey cliches, uninspired twists, and an inappropriate score hamper what should’ve been a captivating drama. Despite the narrative’s glaring flaws, Daniels immaculately crafts every setting. Each scene is gloriously lit by his hazy cinematography. Scenes set in the Gaines’ living room become the movie’s most entertaining and naturalistic moments. Daniels’ grand vision, featuring shocking violence and his commendable attention to detail, brings this monumental era to life. The Butler‘s verisimilitude captures the evolving styles and ideologies of each passing decade. Hurriedly transitioning from one influential time period to another, Daniels mixes and matches bold colours, costumes, tunes, and settings to re-create crucial historical moments and communities.
“Everything you are and everything you have, is because of that butler.” Gloria Gaines (Oprah Winfrey), The Butler).
Each group, given due diligence in this manipulative drama, is defined by obvious and imperative traits. Here, the characters are charged with changing every facet of America. The Butler bizarrely suggests that Cecil and Louis’ uneasy relationship heavily influenced the Civil Rights Movement. The conservative worker vs. conscientious idealist sub-plot lends this movie some much-needed gravitas. Unfortunately, montages kick into overdrive before the audience can find any emotional investment. Thankfully, the insightful characters and hard-hitting performances become consolations. Despite the predictable arcs, the characters are intrinsically rooted into this cloying drama. Cecil, in particular, is a fascinating man. Similarly to Forrest Gump, Cecil’s reserve and persona prove one person really can make a difference within a sustainable nation. Graciously, Whitaker delivers a remarkable performance as this valued figure. Meanwhile, Winfrey, at least, earns a Best Supporting Actress nod for her tender portrayal of the butler’s first lady. Gloria’s familial issues, emphasised by her sketchy friendship with sleazy neighbour Howard (Terrence Howard), provide the emotional punch sorely lacking elsewhere. With stunt casting including Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, and Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, The Butler‘s impressive A-listers are hampered by Saturday Night Live-esque prosthetics.
Despite the commendable intentions and alluring visual style, Daniels’ efforts dampen this intriguing and inspirational story. Given his peculiar filmography, Daniels has thrown himself into the ‘style over substance’ filmmaking realm. This drama, if anything, suggests that directors should be judged based on ability, and not race, class, or gender. Ironically, that’s all The Butler can serve up.