Film Review – Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Lee Daniels' The Butler
There is a fine line between sentiment and sentimentality, and for the greater part of its running time, Lee Daniels’ The Butler performs a stunning balancing act. This was a relief for me, because seeing the words “Based on the True Story” appear before the film stiffened my spine and bristled my neck hair. I thought I was in for it. Well, I was in for it, but not in the way I expected. This film has its schmaltzy moments, of course, and it oversimplifies politics, and it’s a bit too didactic a few too many times. But overall, the performances are strong, the writing is sharp and affecting, and the emotions are powerful.
The story is incredibly loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, named Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) in the film, who found himself employed as the White House butler for nearly three decades (from 1952-1986). And while some films with an epic sweep falter in creating a smooth, unhurried narrative (Midnight’s Children is an example from earlier this year), The Butler excels in this area. The film chronicles the evolving status of African Americans in the United States, starting in the 1920s and ending in the modern era. We see slavery at its worst, lynchings, lunch-counter sit-ins, desegregation, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Black Panther movement all through the eyes of a White House butler who was subservient to the most powerful white men in the country. And while the film feels epic in scope, it actually plays out more like a domestic drama, which is much to its benefit.
These domestic scenes work well both because of the snappy and realistic dialogue and the serious acting chops of everyone involved. Yes, even Oprah. The people who doubt Oprah’s acting ability haven’t seen either The Color Purple or Beloved. It is true that even I had doubts: it’s been a while since Oprah’s last film, and she’s become such a cultural juggernaut that I felt her presence would take me out of the film. And it did, for a half second; then we see her without makeup and with clips in her hair, at breakfast with her two young sons, and in a voice that perfectly captures the exasperation, anger, and love of a mother, she tells her son, “watch your language.” It’s a simple line, but it’s perfectly delivered. In another scene, she sleeps fitfully next to her husband, jealous of all the time he spends at the White House and not at home. She’s been drinking. “How many shoes does she have?” She’s asking this about Jackie Kennedy. She gets out of bed then and goes to her vanity to sloppily put on lipstick. “I bet you wish I spoke French. Like Jackay.” Oprah plays this scene perfectly, with a deft mix of anger, bitterness, jealousy, heartbreak—and humor. She is one of the film’s finest performers.
Whitaker, of course, is the other. This is his show, and he holds his own. Without words, his whole body exudes the look and demeanor of a world-weary man attempting at all cost to maintain his dignity. Cecil’s whole life has been dedicated to making the households of white men function smoothly, but he is also all too aware that the white men are the ones cheating him of this dignity he desires. And while he’s adept at keeping the White House smoothly operational, his own house is falling apart. His son Louis (David Oyelowo) leaves home to become a fierce civil rights activist, including joining the Black Panther movement of the late ’60s and ’70s, while his other son, Charlie (Isaac White), joins the Army to fight in the Vietnam War. But times are not always tough. Oftentimes the domestic scenes with Cecil and his family and with Cecil and the rest of the White House butler staff (Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz) are what softens the film and endears the characters to the viewer. The characters here are given room to be themselves and to breathe; they are allowed to come to life.
It is in the more explosive moments that Lee Daniels loses his grip on the material. He has quite a knack for portraying the quiet, poignant dramas of family life, but in the scenes of intense racial confrontation, the film falls flat. There is a scene of a bus filled with civil rights activists being attacked by a mob of white-robed Southerners carrying torches and baseball bats. This scene should carry an unbearable tension; it should be frightening and gritty and propulsive. But it devolves into slow-mo images of torches and a rocking bus and scared faces, angry faces and a Molotov cocktail being thrown. Before that can crash into the bus and explode, however, the film cuts to news footage of the aftermath, the burnt-out bus, the African Americans and their sympathizers being dragged away. The moments that should carry the most suspense fizzle out into newsreels and awkward, toothless, after-school, educational film scenes. The presidents as well are not always so perfectly cast. Robin Williams makes for an unnatural Eisenhower, and John Cusack is no Nixon. James Marsden and Minka Kelly as JFK and Jackie O. are the most jarring. Marsden has the look right, but can’t move beyond a wooden performance, and Minka Kelly has absolutely no screen presence. But for the most part, all the actors are game, earnest, and don’t detract too heavily from the better parts of the film.
Again, this film isn’t perfect. It isn’t a masterpiece and it won’t go down as a classic piece of cinema, but it is a powerful film that attempts to seriously reflect on how far we have (or have not) come as a nation toward equal rights. It falters along the way, slipping a few times into sentimentality and melodrama, and it also has a pretty simplistic view of politics, but the notion that the black butler was actually a quietly subversive agent against the white hegemony is a refreshing idea I hadn’t personally thought of before. The stellar main cast members perform exceptionally well, and while the film verges into some uncomfortable, propaganda-like moments towards the last fifteen minutes, I couldn’t help but leave the theater moved.