Lee Daniels finally goes full historical drama with his Forest Whitaker-starring bid for awards season glory, The Butler (or, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, depending on how sensitive you are to technicalities). Based on the real life story of White House butler Eugene Allen, who worked for eight U.S. presidents between the years 1952 and 1986, Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong have retrofitted Allen’s compelling story to suit their own aims (changing the name of the Allen character to “Cecil Gaines” is the least egregious modification to the story, and even that one feels strange). Less a story about one man and his experiences in a changing White House (and a changing world), The Butler is mostly a domestic drama told in the vein of Forrest Gump about a man who just happens to work in the White House, with much of history hitting him outside the confines of his unique job.
Despite Gaines’ (or Allen’s, again depending on how sensitive you are to technicalities) incredibly interesting career path (from Southern slave to hotel employee to highest ranking butler in the White House), most of The Butler is focused on the family squabbles that play out between the apolitical Cecil and his oldest son Louis (played mostly by the wonderful David Oyelowo), who becomes a civil rights crusader in the most Forrest Gump way possible (you name a major event in the civil rights movement, and Louis is there, usually on television too, just for good measure). The film’s very subject matter basically guarantees that its audience will feel an emotional engagement with its material, with Cecil and Louis’ father-son drama only serving to heighten that sense of personal connection.
Daniels’ decision to keep his camera on the trials and tribulations of the Gaines family would be fine, albeit still a smidge boring, if The Butler wasn’t plagued by one insurmountable fact – the real butler didn’t have a son who was a civil rights crusader. He didn’t even have two sons. In fact, Allen only had one son, and much like the youngest Gaines boy in the film (played in later years by the very funny Elijah Kelley), he went to war, he didn’t participate in the civil rights movement. It seems that, despite very compelling and unique source material, both Daniels and Strong wanted to make a movie that centered on the civil rights movement – an admirable and important idea, undoubtedly – which is why it’s so bizarre that they cannibalized the real story of the butler to make such a lax Forrest Gump rip-off.
Daniels’ directorial style may not be at Precious levels here, but it’s still readily apparent – his fuzzy, nearly sweaty lighting, seemingly salacious close-ups on dirty deeds, over-the-top supporting characters (Oprah Winfrey’s turn as Cecil’s wife is monstrous and then oddly constrained), and a poor sense of structure all dot the landscape of The Butler – and while Daniels’ consistency with his point of view is admirable, his lack of growth is becoming more and more of a problem. Daniels is also still prone to trotting out sequences clearly meant to feel excessively meaningful, using obvious juxtaposition to convey heavy-handed messages about his storyline and his characters. This is never more conspicuous than during a long sequence that sees young Louis participating in a lunch counter sit-in (he’s sitting even though other people don’t want him to!) while a White House-serving Cecil seats guests at a fancy dinner (he’s pulling out the chairs for other people to sit in!). It’s a film school level trick that Daniels isn’t interested in shedding just yet, even though it makes otherwise competent work look juvenile.
Despite casting a wide variety of known actors to play American presidents in various states of disarray (and we’re talking serious disarray – John Cusack as Nixon is somehow both completely hilarious and strangely compelling, Robin Williams’ Eisenhower seems like an afterthought, and Liev Schreiber’s LBJ is like something ripped from an SNL skit), the final third of The Butler glosses right over some administrations by way of newsreel footage. It’s a highly unfortunate choice, especially considering that, as the Kennedys, James Marsden and Minka Kelly provide some of the best and most emotional scenes in the entire film. Daniels has all the pieces to make something rich and real with his The Butler, but his adherence to his old styles and a disregard for existing material keep his film from being the emotional blockbuster it could (and, in the hands of another director, likely would) have been.
The Upside: Compelling casting, well-made historical elements (costumes, make-up, set designs), solid supporting performances (Cuba Gooding, Jr. is particularly solid as a fellow butler), a reliable turn by Whitaker (despite not being compelling enough for awards season attention).
The Downside: Consistent over-direction from Daniels, a limp script from Strong, and an unshakable sense of Forrest Gump historical retread.
On the Side: You can read the article that started it all, Wil Haygood’s piece “A Butler Well Served by This Election” from the Washington Post, right HERE.