For something that feels like an event film, it seems the biggest pre-release hype that Lee Daniels’ The Butler got was its battle with Warner Brothers for its official title. The Weinstein Company are releasing the film in August (perhaps hoping to be the next The Help), but it feels like they don’t have faith it’s an Oscar picture — even though Lee Daniels has previous been nominated on top of following the Oscar bio-pic blueprint step by step with this film. The end result is a film that is compelling in fits and spots that deals with nearly a century of race relations in America.
- Director: Lee Daniels
- Screenwriter: Danny Strong
- Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz
- Cinematography by: Andrew Dunn
- Original Music by: Rodrigo Leão
Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) walks us through his life as he was born on a Southern Plantation in the 1920′s. There, even though the civil war had been over for fifty years, Cecil’s mother is raped by their white boss and his father is shot point blank for no reason. This leads the older white woman of the house to take pity on Cecil and so she trains him to be a “house nigger.” Once an adult, he leaves the plantation, finds work and is eventually recruited by the White House to serve, which he does (in the film’s timeline) from Eisenhower through to Reagan. At home, his wife (Winfrey) resents how much time he spends at work, and drinks heavily, while his oldest son Louis (Oyelowo) grows up to join with Martin Luther King to help fight the oppression in the South, which Cecil wants Louis to avoid the South entirely. Louis and Cecil grow to butt heads about how to handle racism in America, and their conflict drives much of the plot as Louis takes an active role in the civil rights movement, while Cecil sees first hand through the presidents how those decisions were made.
- A Better Forrest Gump: When Forrest Gump became a huge hit in 1994, it walked America through a similar timeline in a journey about a southern man who witnessed many of the great moments in 20th century history. That character was “special,” so instead of making the viewer active in his journey, you could watch it as a nostalgia trip. “Here’s the greatest hits of the 20th century all on one cassette.” But when Lee Daniels’ The Butler opens in 1928 with Cecil witnessing his father shot for speaking up to a white man, it invokes so many murders of unarmed black men — be it Trayvon Martin, or the incidents portrayed in Fruitvale Station or Emmett Till — that it’s impossible not to think about the context and the history at large. And while many films portrayed the civil rights movement on film, it’s still interesting to see a film like this show those struggles.
- The Presidents: Daniels brought in Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Liev Schrieber and Alan Rickman to play the presidents Cecil worked under, and though it would be easy for this to be a cameo-fest, his casting works in that it was always going to be a little distracting to have presidents represented on the big screen. But no one seems to be doing a caricature, it’s just a light dressing of familiar tropes, and they never steal the spotlight. This sort of thing, which could reek of stunt casting, is hard to pull off, but it works here.
- Daniels’ Cast Work: Oprah Winfrey is such a famous figure, but this is one of her better performances, while it’s great to see performers like Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard get to have fun. Often the duo are cast to play either terrible or angelic, but here they get to cut loose and be funny and dirty, and that’s fun to watch. This is easily the best Cuba Gooding Jr.’s been on screen since Jerry Maguire.
- Oscar Picture: The driving impetus behind this film seems to be to get awards and positive reviews and get people talking about it, and as such all the pleasures of the film are incidental to its Oscar thrust. Though it’s impossible to watch an unarmed black man get shot and not have it resonant with our current culture, it also feels like Daniels was hoping to have a big sweeping story with a happy ending. Where his Precious (which also suffered from a torturous new title) may have accidentally become awards bait, this movie seems programmed to get Oscar attention, which explains its other biggest problem. The film feels slightly full of it. This isn’t classically good storytelling, it uses the backbone of history to take us through a different perspective of those events and how they changed lives, but it never cements what it wants to be about.
- They Never Found Their Ending: The film works as a tour through history, with the central conflict between two generations of Black men. Cecil, who wants to avoid getting killed for no reason because he knows how that can go down, and his son Louis, who wants to actively fight for change (and perhaps without having the same sort of first hand experience). Both sides have their points, and this all seems to culminate — at least from a dramatic perspective — with the film’s Vietnam sequence. But because it’s too easy, the film skips over presidents Ford and Carter and jumps into Reagan, which then shows that president trying to do nice things on the side in private, but then shows his stance on Apartheid and how he used Cecil and his wife to show he cares about black people. It becomes an indictment of the Republican mindset (Reagan is nice to people in his vision, but could care less when those people aren’t personalized), but it mostly makes Reagan likeable, which seems a weird choice, and doesn’t move the story along. But as if Reagan wasn’t enough the film wants to end with Obama being elected. And though at 132 minutes, it’s not as painfully long as most films of this ilk, the last twenty to thirty minutes just present incident without narrative pull.
- Empty Headed Movies: This is a bio-pic that can be dismissed for everything that’s wrong with it as a film, and as a film it’s not successful. It just isn’t. But it does portray enough interesting things about history (some of which are obviously falsified, which complicates the matter), and does present enough ideas to engage an audience intellectually, and enough performances that are fun to watch that it is of merit. Where less than two months later, it’s hard to remember much of what happened in Man of Steel, or any number of summer movies, The Butler at least presents interesting things to think about. The film belongs to a genre of films that aren’t very good, but that used to be all the rage when studios were chasing Oscar gold (think Gandhi). Now that the studios are way more interested in making franchise pictures, that there’s really only a couple of films like this a year, and are generally not forced down a viewers throat makes them more passion projects, even if that passion if for Oscars. It may be a nostalgia for something that’s terrible, but when so many big Hollywood movies are actively about nothing (even some of the best of them), even a crude attempt at topicality and relevance is a breath of fresh air.
From a structural/aesthetic standpoint, there are numerous flaws with the movie which make it problematic to recommend, but as a commentary about race relations throughout the 20th century, and how slow America was to adapt to the end of slavery, there are enough interesting things about the film to make it compelling. When David Oyelowo (age 37) shows up playing a teenager — albeit briefly, though much of his screen time is when he’s in college and shortly out of it — it sets the stage that this is like a well-meaning community theater project. That’s not a bad way to gauge the film. Great art it’s not, but there are pleasures to be had.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler opens in theaters August 16.