Lee Daniels’ The Butler Review


If The Paperboy was director Lee Daniels unfettered, Lee Daniels’ The Butler (henceforth to be referred to as The Butler) is a film clearly saddled with self-importance. The film opens with a quote and closes with a dedication, but those are far from the only clues hinting that Daniels has big things on his mind. The soaring crescendoes and lilting piano notes of Rodrigo Leão’s original score scream that this is a film of great substance. Ditto the countless cameos.

Despite all that, this immensely palatable film has enough perfectly cooked meat on its bones that the proverbial fat you’re forced to chew to get there won’t ruin your meal. Daniels, like he did with Precious, coaxes exceptional performances out of his stars, and while heavy-handed a little too often, it’s impossible to deny his take on this true story isn’t extraordinarily well-intentioned. That makes it a little hard to hate on The Butler. Yes, I groaned, but I also found myself quite moved by parts of Cecil Gaines’ story.

That story begins in Macon, Georgia circa 1926. Cecil (played as an adult by Forest Whitaker) works on a cotton farm with his mother and father, who impart one important lesson to him: It’s a white man’s world. They all learn this the hard way when, after raping Mrs. Gaines, the farm’s owner shoots Mr. Gaines dead. He goes unpunished.

Cecil, however, is looked after by the farm’s caretaker (Vanessa Redgrave). He works indoors now—serving food, shining shoes, etc. As a young adult, he ventures off on his own, and eventually, he becomes a butler at a prestigious Washington, D.C. hotel, where he catches the eye of a White House staffer. Soon, he’s asked to serve his country and, quite literally, its leaders as a butler to the President of the United States—Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams) at the time. Cecil (in real life, Eugene Allen) held his post until retiring during the Reagan administration in 1986.

Throughout the film, Cecil (via voiceover) tells us that successful butlers must have two faces. The first is that of a no-nonsense (and certainly in this position, apolitical) server. The second is simply their off-duty, at-home self, and The Butler concerns itself as much with the latter as it does the former. We see a lot of Cecil’s wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), as well as his two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley).

Gloria loves her husband but hates his job. During her loneliest hours, she finds solace at the bottom of a bottle. Louis, meanwhile, is the film’s chief source of conflict. He loathes his father’s passive attitude toward civil rights, and after heading off to college down South (against his father’s will), he gets beaten and arrested on multiple occasions. As he grows older, he becomes more militant and helps form the Black Panther Party. Cecil disowns him. It’s a sad story without a hero or villain. It’s also by far The Butler‘s best material.

If the White House stuff was half as compelling as the father-son dynamic between Cecil and Louis, The Butler might be one of the year’s best films, but unfortunately, it lumbers along without rhythm or a clear purpose. Only occasionally do events that transpire in the Oval Office inform Cecil’s other face, and every president—from Eisenhower to Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Schreiber) to Nixon (John Cusack) to Reagan (Alan Rickman)—represents little more than a chance to get a laugh out of a name actor.

Forest Whitaker gives what might be the best performance of his career here. The Last King of Scotland won him an Oscar, but he wears quite a few more hats in this film. Mild-mannered to a fault, we watch him serve and serve and serve and ask for nothing in return, but near the end of the film, Cecil single-handedly changes White House policy and gets the salaries for black employees equal to those of white employees. It takes a lot to get Cecil from point A (kindly servant) to point B (confident crusader) but Whitaker navigates that journey and all its twists and turns like a champion.

Oprah gives a strong performance, as well. It’s probably not the kind you’d expect—it’s a supporting turn in every sense of the word—but she disappears well enough into the character of Gloria. And as Louis, David Oyelowo hides his explosiveness beneath the surface just enough so that we’re thrown off on the few occasions when it comes out.

The film’s lessons are worth noting. Heroes, Daniels says, might not seem like heroes when they’re acting heroically, but history often corrects injustice. Louis was a disrespectful criminal, but he sacrificed his reputation for the advancement of all black men and women. Cecil might not have been marching on the streets of Selma or fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, but he was serving his country, nonetheless. Both men sacrificed familial relationships for the sake of careers and causes, but they came around to each other eventually, and it was in those moments that The Butler truly resonated.

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