Hollywood History

Lee Daniels’ The Butler
(USA, 132 min.)
Dir. Lee Daniels, Writ. Danny Strong
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz.
Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker star in Lee Daniels' The Butler.
Photo by Anne Marie Fox, courtesy eOne Films.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler was retitled from The Butler after Warner Bros. launched a ridiculous lawsuit against the film. The Butler, directed by Oscar nominee Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) shared the title of an obscure short film from 1916. One could find the ridiculous mudslinging from Warner Bros. ironically fortuitous for Lee Daniels’ The Butler, since the film is drenched in history, yet told with a distinctly cinematic Lee Daniels’ spin. There’s history that is told in textbooks and then there’s history that is told in movies.

Nobody pees onscreen in The Butler, nor are there any juggernaut performances that come out of left field. (But there are some great performances to be sure.) Yes, the man who made moviegoers consider that Mariah Carey’s performance in Glitter was the result of bad direction and guided Mo’Nique to one of best performances in the history of cinema is back in the Oscar race. The Butler might not be anywhere in the same league as Precious—or even be as strong as The Paperboy—but one suspects that this emotionally-tinged epic is the landmark film of Daniels’ career so far. It’s a slice of American history, a sprawling Civil Rights saga told by a black director and starring a predominantly black cast. The Butler might not be Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, but it’s an important, entertaining, and genuinely moving film.

The Butler makes little claim for historical accuracy as the film, written by Danny Strong (Game Change), is inspired by the true story of White House butler Eugene Allen, who served seven Presidents during his career. Renamed Cecil Gaines and played with remarkable grace, poise, and quiet dignity by Forest Whitaker, the butler serves as both an insider and an outsider to American history. The Butler chronicles Gaines’ career as a servant, which begins in 1926 on a Georgian cotton plantation. Cecil, at age 8, witnesses the murder of his father (David Banner) after he stands up to the ruthless plantation owner (Alex Pettyfer) for raping Cecil’s mother (played by a nearly unrecognizable Mariah Carey). Cecil comes under the protection of the plantation’s matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave), who takes him out of the fields and teaches him how to serve inside the house where he can be safer.

Cecil’s escape from the hard life of the cotton fields eventually leads to a job in the White House. Decades go by as Cecil works for one President after the other: Eisenhower (played by Robin Williams), JFK and his wife Jackie (played by James Marsden and Minka Kelly), Richard Nixon (John Cusack), and Ronald and Nancy Regan (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda), just to name a few. The Butler breezes through years of American history as Cecil watches it unfold before his eyes. Surprisingly, though, working in the Whitehouse seems to blind Cecil to the realities of life on the streets of America. His unwavering faith in the people he serves in the White House leaves him oblivious to how the decisions made by America’s politicians are affecting the lives of his own family members back home.

Life at the Gaines’ residence isn’t nearly as pristine and ordered as things run in the White House. Cecil’s wife, Gloria (played by Oprah Winfrey, who steals the show), is a boozy housewife with needs going unfulfilled. Their eldest son, Louis (The Paperboy’s David Oyelowo), is a restless radical who resents the apolitical complacency entailed in his father’s career. Private lives affect public lives and vice versa (as they always do in the movies) and The Butler weaves the story of the Gaines family’s risky struggle with the Civil Rights movement to extend to a larger picture of Americans at that moment in time. Does one act like Cecil and make a respectable living by towing the line and providing for one’s family, or does one fight the power like Louis and force the system to change? Life is not as easy as either of the Gaines men wants it to be, and the domestic blow-for-blows in the Gaines’ household leads each man to move forward and enact change in his own way.

Comparisons to The Help seem inevitable as The Butler situates itself in the midst of a representation of the Civil Rights Movement. Daniels’ film is admittedly safer than his previous works, but The Butler hardly presents a simplified snapshot of history. The Butler in fact opens the film with a shot of two bodies hanging from a lynching and then provides a rape and murder in the first five minutes. If The Butler is sanitized, it seems so only to obscure content that might prevent a PG-13 rating. (See, for example, a dirty joke that muffles mention of the female anatomy.) The Butler is as family-friendly as The Help is, but it certainly doesn’t ignore the larger context in which Cecil’s story plays out.

The real similarity between The Butler and The Help, though, simply lies in the strength of its acting. The ensemble of The Butler is easily its greatest asset. Whitaker is a fine lead and gives his best performance since The Last King of Scotland. Winfrey, however, is absolutely magnetic as Gloria. Oprah brings a surprising sexual energy to The Butler as Gloria’s hungry eyes gaze from Cecil to her neighbour (Terrence Howard), and the sight of Oprah playing Gloria all sweaty, liquored up, and flirtatiously toying a cigarette between her fake nails gives a heat to The Butler that one doesn’t expect. Anyone who has ever been in the room to feel Oprah’s aura—I felt it at the TIFF Gala of Precious and seeing Oprah work her mojo on the crowd provided one of the most energetic moviegoing experiences of my life—will sense the same energy in The Butler. The woman is a force of nature! Oprah’s an emotional force, too, as she gives the film some of its most affective moments. There might be times when it’s difficult to forget that one is watching the Queen of daytime TV, but any seepage of star persona seems fitting for the actress playing the matriarch of this American family. The range of her performance—take a scene where she rocks out in a sexy wig and disco suit, and then collapses at the news of a death—makes one wish she acted more. She’s easily the standout of a strong supporting cast.

Other players, like Oyelowo, make very strong impressions in the ensemble. The Butler becomes a little uneven, if not awkward, though, with its supporting cast being so saturated in star power. Even the most minor roles are filled by big name stars. Carey, for example, has fleeting screentime. One expects some of the big names to enjoy roles that are more significant, so the quick passage from star to star accentuates The Butler’s expansive glossing over of 60 years into 132 minutes. The star cameos are often distracting as the film often moves too quickly to do much else than let a viewer note a familiar face. These observations are especially disruptive with some of the casting choices in the Presidential roles. Some choices, like Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as the Reagans, are spot-on and mostly seamless. Others, however, particularly the dubious choice of John Cusack as Nixon, are damaging. By amplifying the star wattage with guest appearances, The Butler sometimes feels like a bloated soap opera.

There’s a genuine sense of catharsis, however, as the film builds to the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States and Cecil’s amazement at living to see a black man elected to the White House. The Butler culminates by conveying the importance of Obama’s victory with a sense of relevancy akin to the finale of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Other moments, such as a pivotal speech where Martin Luther King, Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) explains to Louis the value of Cecil’s role as a black domestic—he says that Cecil’s dignity and manner work to break down racial stereotypes—further draw out the importance of telling this story of a White House butler. It’s the transition from being a passive observer to an agent of change that lets Cecil embody American history in the making.

Narrative sprawl aside, The Butler pulls at heartstrings quite effectively as it pits Gaines at the centre of the Civil Rights Movement. The film lets the audience connect with the personal element of the domestic story while building the larger tension inside Gaines as returns to the White House following run-ins with Louis’s radicalism and Gloria’s depression, and sees the game of politics anew. Daniels steps back from the rough ‘n’ dirty business of The Paperboy and returns to the emotionally charged storytelling of Precious that was fuelled by character and performance. The Butler is unabashedly sentimental, yet it doesn’t feel manipulative or forced. The poignancy of the film, conveyed primarily through the honesty of the performances, conveys the feeling of the era—the anger, the fear, the hunger, and, finally, the release. The Butler is a flawed dramatization of history, but an undeniably worthwhile one at that.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is currently playing in wide release.
Update: The Butler screens at The ByTowne Nov. 2-4.