For those unaware, The Butler was renamed Lee Daniels’ The Butler in response to a lawsuit filed by Warner Bros. (which claimed the rights to the original title). The historical drama is based upon the life and times of the late Eugene Allen: an African-American who was employed as a “pantry man,” then as a butler, and eventually as the maître d’hôtel in the White House from 1952 to 1986. By the time he retired, Allen had worked for seven different U.S. presidents, during a period of time in which the American social landscape began to undergo radical changes.
Daniels’ movie stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, the character inspired by the real-life Eugene Allen. Cecil starts from humble beginnings working as a child house servant on a cotton farm in the 1920s, but grows up to become a successful butler – that is, before he accepts an offer to become a member of the care-taking staff for the Oval Office. However, the long hours demanded by Cecil’s job take their toll on his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey); not to mention, Cecil’s dedication to the White House puts him at odds with his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo), when the latter becomes an iron-willed participant in the American Civil Rights Movement.
Director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong (Game Change) have taken a number of liberties with the source article written by Will Haygood, “A Butler Well Served by This Election”, in an attempt to transform Allen’s life and times into a larger metaphor for conflicting ideologies within the African-American community, regarding the best way to instigate social progress/reform in the U.S. during the second half of the 20th century. The final movie result is part lackluster biopic, part ham-fisted (and somewhat misguided) historical allegory, despite the noble intentions of the cast and filmmakers involved.
Unfortunately, The Butler script from Strong casts such a wide net that it winds up being the source of many problems in the film. Strong’s narrative – which (and you’re bound to soon be tired of hearing this) can best be summarized as a Forrest Gump-esque look at history – attempts to use each member of the Gaines clan as a symbol representing the collective experience of different demographics of the African-American community – while still allowing each of them to function as a three-dimensional character. Because of this, Cecil, Gloria and Louis each wind up having a complete, yet half-coooked and only partly satisfying arc. Too often, they feel more like puppets being used by a storyteller to prove a political point, rather than real people (in terms of how the Gaines are written, that is).
With regards to his direction, Daniels struggles to put together a story that is well-paced and tightly-structured – which results in a film that often feels ungainly and repetitive. The grainy, yet luminescent, cinematography by Andrew Dunn – who collaborated with Daniels before on Precious – gives the film a pleasant look (even though his and Daniels’ shot choices and composition tends to be uninteresting). However, some of the transitional edits by Joe Klotz have a tendency to be clunky – though, probably only hardcore movie buffs and actual filmmakers will notice. Others are more likely to observe how scenes of well-groomed Cecil and his peers working in the White House are frequently juxtaposed with footage of Louis risking his life to battle for equality in the dirty and dangerous streets of America. Problem is, this approach more often than not comes across as hammy, not poetic – and reaches the point of overkill when it is repeated several times throughout the film.
This is where The Butler starts to feel “misguided,” in terms of how the film blends together the feel-good nature of Cecil’s storyline with the brutal realism of Louis’ journey. Daniels’ movie doesn’t come across as schizophrenic in the way it moves back and forth between the separate narrative threads – yet, at the same time, the setting never consistently feels like either a heightened version of reality or an honest representation of the historical U.S. Sorry to say, the final outcome is that the scenes that are meant to be spiritually-uplifting feel somewhat insincere – while the sequences that depict violence against the black population occasionally end up seeming more exploitative than unflinchingly honest.
What saves the movie from being a real mess are the strong performances from the cast, with Whitaker, Oyelowo and Winfrey all proving willing to forgo dramatic showboating in favor of more humble and poignant acting. Similarly, actors like Cuba Gooding Jr. (Red Tails) and Lenny Kravitz (The Hunger Games) bring a sense of real humanity to the roles of Cecil’s longtime co-workers at the White House, as does Terrence Howard (Dead Man Down) as one of the Gaines’ close friends; likewise, Colman Domingo (Lincoln) and Vanessa Redgrave (Coriolanus) make the most of their brief screen-time, as noteworthy characters who Cecil encounters in life. It’s too bad, though, that musicians/actors David Banner and Mariah Carey as Cecil’s parents are only featured onscreen long enough to suffer at the hands of a vicious plantation head (flatly played by Alex Pettyfer, armed with silly facial hair).
The cast members who play U.S. presidents and their wives in the film are very much footnotes in the story, so each only has a couple minutes to produce either a strong or weak caricature of a real historical figure. As such, the better ones in the film include James Marsden (2 Guns) and Minka Kelly (Friday Night Lights) as John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy, along with Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan) as Lyndon B. Johnson – as well as Alan Rickman (Harry Potter) and Jane Fonda (The Newsroom) as Ronald and Nancy Reagan. In the not-so-memorable category, we have Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Cusack as Richard Nixon. (The latter, in particular, is unimpressive and seems incapable of maintaing a Nixon-ian voice.)
What’s frustrating about The Butler – when you consider the film as a whole – is that it was clearly produced with decent intentions. Yet, the movie winds up taking the meaningful lessons that can be learned from studying the real Eugene Allen’s life – and turns his story into a cinematic sermon about history that is told from a different perspective, but offers limited insight with regard to the major topics that it deals with. At the end of the day, Haygood’s source article is more interesting and moving for one simple reason: it just tells Allen’s story, no exaggeration included (or necessary).
For those who are still undecided about whether or not to see the film, here is the trailer for The Butler:
The Butler is 132 minutes long and Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking. Now playing in theaters.