Nov 29, 2013
Lee Daniels' The Butler is like a Western Union telegram of the history of the civil rights movement and it has the same powerful bluntness. A lot of it is obvious and strained, but emotionally, it works.
It's worth comparing it to Steve McQueen's Twelve Years A Slave in that Daniels embraces artificiality in the retelling and feels no compunction in making everything as movie-like as possible; using big stars, milking the string section, and applying a thick layer of melodrama. This is great material for schoolkids (and their minders) everywhere to learn the lessons of injustice, the evils of racism, and the heroic fight for civil rights. It's Civil Rights Lite.
Paradoxically, none of the disturbing questions that arose while I watched 12 Years a Slave came up here. True, slavery is an atrocity which presents its own unique representation issues, but obviously the topics of the two films are intimately related. In The Butler, it is understood from second three that if Mariah Carey plays a poor cotton picker, we're in for the full Hollywood biopic treatment. Daniels applies very broad strokes to show the important milestones of the history of civil rights through the eyes of Cecil Gaines, a real life butler for four American presidents. Steve McQueen's approach is far more methodical and tries to detach from personal melodrama. It is a particularly painstaking reenactment of slavery. The Butler is more like the "Hall of Presidents" Disneyland ride.
There were a couple of times where I saw more than one mobile device light up to check the time; The Butler is long but not boring. Daniels is a clumsy director, but he can elicit fantastic performances from actors, and in this movie, has assembled an amazing cast, headed by the great Forest Whitaker. He is spectacular as Cecil Gaines, a humble man, a man who loved to serve, and seemed to have harbored no resentment for the terrible fate of his family and his own servitude. I cried rivers of tears throughout the movie and I suspect that it was Whitaker's portrayal of a dignified servant that moved me immensely. There is a lovely scene where he is making coffee at the White House as if it were the first and only cup of coffee ever to be served, where he embodies the selflessness, the essence of service. I don't think it is easy for an actor, much less for a modern American, to understand the mentality of servitude; but everything Whitaker does, from serving coffee, to offering cookies to visiting schoolchildren, to reading a story to young Caroline Kennedy, screams quiet, determined authenticity. He manages to be gracious and unerringly helpful without altogether losing his dignity. Whitaker destroys in this performance all those terrible, yet enduring stereotypes of endearing black servants (all the way to the execrable The Help) that have plagued Hollywood movies for years. He should be nominated for an Oscar.
The rest of the black cast is fantastic. Cuba Gooding Jr. (why isn't this man in more movies?), Colman Domingo, Terrence Howard and Elijah Kelley are great. It's fun to see Lenny Kravitz as a butler. David Oyelowo, as Gaines' son, ashamed of his father's servility, is also very good.
Oprah Winfrey plays Cecil's unruly wife, and she has great moments but she seems unfocussed. Adriane Lenox and Yaya Alafia are also splendid. And then we have the presidents. The parade of Hollywood stars under make up (great job overall), is lots of fun. Robin Williams as Eisenhower is the least impressive, because he is mawkish. John Cusack, although a good actor, is too cute for Richard Nixon, but he tries to deliver the slime. James Marsden is perfectly decent as JFK, but the one that steals the show, and I could not recognize him until quite a bit into his role, is Liev Schreiber as a salty Lyndon Johnson. He's got the best role in the house and he rocks it. Alan Rickman does a far more dignified Reagan than I remember him. The famous faces add to the enjoyment of the spectacle, instead of distracting. Daniels has a knack for playing fun meta jokes with casting. It is delicious to see Oprah Winfrey, the richest woman in the world, visit the White House for the first time as a plain and starry eyed housewife (she is excellent in this scene; the best one in the movie). Jane Fonda, in a delicious irony, plays none other than Nancy Reagan like the iron lady she was. She has about two minutes of screen time and she is fierce. John Cusack (in real life, a liberal pinko commie) plays Richard Nixon.
The Butler is so evidently a schmaltzy pastiche, that it could not be tolerable if lesser actors were in it. Certainly, Whitaker's performance deserves a much better movie. But here's the conundrum: 12 Years A Slave is, in terms of craft and vision, a much superior movie, a punishing ordeal that outrages intellectually, but does not really connect emotionally; The Butler, in contrast, is clumsy, obvious, at times ridiculous, but it shamelessly goes straight for the heart, and tugs real hard.