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Lee Daniels’ The Butler

High school ended for me over 30 years ago, but I bet I would have really enjoyed “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” if I had seen it when I was 17. As a 48 year-old though, I’m calling it out for being the lightweight, television movie-ish, Forrest Gumpian masquerade ball that it is(see Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower! cringe at the casting of John Cusack as Richard M. Nixon! chuckle knowingly, while Jane Fonda dresses up as Nancy Reagan!). Its sense of history is akin to watching our hero Cecil Gaines(a strong Forest Whitaker, doing exactly what he’s supposed to do)greet groups of children(that arrive for White House tours)with a plate full of baked treats. “The heck with yesteryear…they’re serving cookies here!”, those kids might say. That’s the kind of historical lesson “The Butler” prepares for you…sugary, doughy, cookie-cutter glimpses of world-shaking events. And most of it is not even experienced through the eyes of Cecil, but that of his oldest son Louis(a solid David Oyelowo, who was Yardley in Daniels’ “The Paperboy” in 2012), who goes from the first Gaines to attend college, to civil rights demonstrator, to Black Panther, to Democratic congressman over the course of 132 minutes. It’s an obvious arc with the expected sentimental resolution. Don’t serve up softballs for over two hours, and expect me not to see “The Butler” for what it is, Mr.Daniels. A CliffsNotes version of nine decades of U.S. history that’s inspired by the story of an actual former Presidential butler named Eugene Allen. The film is being promoted in the press like it’s a true story, although it never actually says that on-screen. It’s just another trick in a long line of Hollywood sleight of hand—via The Weinstein Company(of course). Yeah, most of the film is bullshit injected into real events(can anyone say “life is like a box of chocolates”). Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

“The Butler” follows Cecil Gaines(Mr. Whitaker)from his childhood days in the 1920’s, picking cotton with his family on a Georgia sharecroppers’ farm. Before you can say “12 Years a Slave”, Cecil’s mother(Mariah Carey!)is being raped by the land owner, and then Cecil’s poppa is shot in the head after his son goads his dad into mildly objecting(get it? Cecil learns the hard way to be a good “boy”, and keep his mouth shut). Cecil is then taken into the main house by the plantation owner’s mother(Vanessa Redgrave!), and trained to be a “house” servant. Cecil eventually runs away as he hurtles towards adulthood, and ends up refining his skills as a servant when taken under the wing of Maynard(Clarence Williams III, eternally Linc Hayes of “The Mod Squad”), the master butler at a ritzy hotel. Before long, Maynard helps Cecil land a position at a hotel in Washington D.C., where he impresses a politician enough to get him working at the White House. By this time married to Gloria(Oprah-freaking-Winfrey, in terrific thespian form, even if it is extremely bizarre that she doesn’t seem to age for decades, until the movie’s final two scenes). From there, it’s the obvious trajectory through the administrations of Eisenhower(Mr. Williams), Kennedy(a dull James Marsden), Johnson(a scary-looking Liev Schreiber), Nixon(Mr. Cusack)and Reagan(Alan Rickman!!!). Ford and Carter are mostly skipped, and I guess we can thank the brevity gods for that. Through it all, Cecil and his wife and two sons live through desegregation, the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, until being greatly disrupted by the Vietnam War. Of course, the film eventually lands us at the doorstep of the election of President Barack Obama—and I won’t minimize the importance of that astounding historical happening. It ends in the right place, and it plays those notes touchingly, if sentimentally. I voted for Obama twice, and I wept with pride for my country when he was elected in 2008. I can’t even imagine how that felt to a 90 year-old former plantation-working, African-American who actually worked at the White House for decades serving a variety of caucasian commanders-in-chief. That lump in the throat may taste syrupy, but it is indeed earned.

The central conflict of “The Butler” concerns Cecil’s attempts to conservatively toe-the-line, biting back the desire to lash out, and take baby-steps towards progress. In other words, “being a good boy”. Juxtapose this with his son Louis’s radical steps, that include frequent prison trips for things like sitting in the “white” section at a Tennessee diner and protesting against South African apartheid. It’s two radically different generations and their attempts and failures to understand each other. Is it any wonder that both Cecil and Louis are presented as both “hero” and “villain” when the plot deems it necessary. There are some solid acting chops displayed in “The Butler”. Outside of those I’ve already mentioned, there are strong performances from Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz and Adriane Lenox. But “The Butler” is ultimately too simple and schmaltzy of a “history lesson”, and a lot of the blame should fall squarely in the lap of screenwriter Danny Strong. Mr. Strong garnered multiple awards for his screenplays for the HBO political dramas “Recount” and “Game Change”(the latter reviewed on this blog last year), and it certainly seems that a feather-lite script like the one for “The Butler” would’ve been much better served by premiering on a cable network where expectations would be lowered. It’s going to please(and already has)many audiences who aren’t asking for much. It’s never too upsetting, it never shoots for the stars, and it practically begs you to pull out the tissues for the final scenes. Lee Daniels(who impressed me with “Precious” in 2009)is a shameless and heavy-handed helmer, but I think his heart’s in the right place. “The Butler” is the kind of “prestige picture” that gets a lot of attention come awards time, but I bet it won’t win much though. It’s the kind of thing that folks are happy that they’ve seen and then forget an hour later. And once the remainder of the year’s heavyweights are rolled out, it’ll be mostly a pleasant memory. It’ll get nominations alright—it just won’t win. And that’s fine, because we’ve come much further than this. “12 Years a Slave” never seemed so good.     Grade:  C+

next review up: “Inside Llewyn Davis”

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4 comments on “Lee Daniels’ The Butler

  1. It’s difficult to resolve the accuracy vs. wide-spread-appeal conundrum. I re-watched parts of Lincoln last night and there are moments that appeal as accurate but knowing there is a heavy hand at the helm the manipulation becomes too much. I immersed myself when I saw it the first time and watched without a critical eye (as to history or filmmaking) and enjoyed it very much. There are moments that are pleasing but without that willing suspension it was harder to watch.

    And the wife caught parts of it as I was skipping around. She asked, “Are there any parts of this movie where he speaks like a normal person or does he just go around giving speeches the whole time?” I wonder the same for The Butler. Does anyone talk or act like a real person or are we just getting chunks of exposition? I’m guessing, based on your review, I can figure that one out.

    • Astute observations, as always Brian(and Sandy too!). In this case though, it’s a matter of how the film is being presented in the press(of course, the film makers share the blame, as well). The “happenings” in “The Butler” are certainly mostly accurate, but it’s the insertion of characters(Gump-style)that has you crying foul pretty quickly in. All of a sudden you realize that this “true story” of an actual man begins and end with the character being a butler at the White House. It’s a deception instead of an outright lie.

      Speechifying? Not to the level of “Lincoln”. And to “The Butler”‘s credit, there are a good dose of “real people” scenarios dramatized(alcoholism, infidelity, rivalry). But the entire Gaines family is mostly noble when it’s all over—which is not like real folks at all. I confess that it was bit gratifying that “The Butler was shut out of Golden Globes nominations just hours after I published this review. That’s a little bit of progress, and I like it. ML

  2. Sadly, I have to admit that this is the sort of movie I will mostly likely enjoy. But the part about forgetting it an hour later is probably very true as well. I’m sure it can’t compete with American Hustle. And I am looking forward to 12 Years a Slave.

    • I will give it this, Simon…it’s better than I thought it would be. And it actually made, at least, one brave choice towards the end. I appreciated that. Check back, if you remember, and let us know how you feel about it. ML

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