Review: Lee Daniels' The Butler
The key word is ‘inspiring’, as this story of Cecil Gaines, an African American boy raised on a farm in the 1920’s who would become a servant in The White House for 34 years, is inspired from that of the real life butler Eugene Allen. As Gaines dedicated himself to servitude, he works hard to provide for his family, while his wife deals with his absence, and his two sons join political movements and protests.
Forest Whitaker returns to greatness as Gaines, supported by a stellar if not strange cast. David Oyelowo is his rebellious son, and Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz play coworkers. Terrance Howard is his drunken neighbour, while Oprah Winfrey has a big role as his wife. Then there are the Presidents: Robin Williams, James Mardsen, John Cusack, Live Schrieber, and Alan Rickman – don’t forget Minka Kelly and Jane Fonda as first ladies too.
The film that originally was called just The Butler now has director Lee Daniels’ name in front of it. With that, it should come as no surprise that this rather fascinating and well-acted, if not messy film, begins with a lynching, a rape, and a murder.
Daniels, as usual, is provocative and sensational, only occasionally delicate, and rarely restrained. And as with The Paperboy, and to a lesser degree Precious, how you perceive and engage the film is dependent on what you think of Daniels’ approach. This is not The Blindside or The Help or 42, which is not to diminish those films, but while trailers and posters may want you to think this is a movie about a black person helping white people understand black people, Daniels has different intentions.
By throwing the Gaines family in the mix of racially-charged events from the 50’s onward, he allows the viewer to hear various sides of political and tactical arguments from black characters — not white. Gaines’ eldest son, Louis, is a template for changing ways of thinking. He first joins a non-violent movement, staying disciplined while being beaten at sit-ins, and enlists in the ways of Martin Luther King Jr., (who we see inside and outside the Tennessee motel). He is disillusioned over his death, though, and later joins the more militaristic Black Panthers. The conversations about servitude, spurred by father and son, make for the most compelling discussions in the entire film.
So Daniels crams in quite a bit during this two-hour film, chronicling Gaines’ life from boyhood to senior citizen, bringing in famous people to play presidents, albeit briefly, along the way. He gets good work from these veteran actors, but at no point when you see, for example, Richard Nixon on screen, do you not think first this is John Cusack playing Nixon (unlike Frank Langella, who transformed into Nixon).
That is what Daniels does, however; his hands are everywhere, and he wants to play with all of your emotions, even though he may not know what to do with them. He’ll dare you to sustain the brutal, racial violence (the KKK attacks a bus in one horrific instance), while he’ll let you hope wildly when certain presidents ask for Gaines’ ear and advice.
It’s a patchwork of a film, led by great performances from Whitaker and Winfrey, and supported strongly by Oyelowo especially, with erratic changes in tone and a barreling pace that makes the last third a blur. Daniels is confident, and whether or not you enjoy the way he constructs his movies, they come at you and force you to react – and that’s just what he wants.
Should You See It?
It’s different, challenging, and not as dour as some of Daniels’ recent work. A different perspective to be sure, so check it out.