Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Directed by: Lee Daniels
Written by: Danny Strong
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Yaya Alafia, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, John Cusack, Robin Williams, Liev Shreiber, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda and James Marsden
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is the first film of the season receiving early Oscar buzz, and that contributes to its fatal flaw: it’s hard to watch the film without being cognizant of the fact that it was specifically designed to be Oscar bait. There’s nothing organic about the narrative; it comes across as calculated and cloying (insert moral outrage, cue the tears). That’s a pity, because the film attempts to tackle some genuinely important historical subject matter.
The Butler was inspired by the true story of Eugene Allen, an African-American who served as a butler in the White House for over 34 years, witnessing the evolution of the civil rights movement from the inside. His fictionalized counterpart is Cecil, brought to life in an astonishing performance by Forest Whitaker. The film begins with Cecil’s humble upbringing on a cotton farm, where the plantation matriarch handpicks him to become a house-servant. He later finds work at a prestigious hotel, and is eventually recruited to work in the White House, where he serves over the course of seven presidencies before his retirement. Humble to a fault, Cecil remains tight-lipped about the politics that are constantly swarming around him. He learns to wear two faces, one for his job and one for his private life.
Daniels intersperses the White House scenes with a parallel storyline about Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo), who is a trailblazer in the civil rights movement, first embracing Martin Luther King’s peaceful approach, and later joining the more radical Black Panthers movement. The film rapidly cycles through the annals of civil rights history, jumping from archived footage to live action. In sharp contrast, these scenes are juxtaposed with the quiet deliberation of Cecil’s domestic duties.
It’s an interesting approach to show the contrast between the father and son, but Daniels tries to cram way too much into the story. It’s exhausting and erratic. The narrative would have been better served had Daniels focused on a few pivotal moments. Daniels does make an effort to point out that while father and son are seemingly worlds apart in their personal philosophies, each contributes to the civil rights movement in their own way.
The central cast is superb. Oprah Winfrey plays Cecil’s longtime love Gloria. She makes effective use of her time on screen as an oft neglected wife who seeks comfort from booze. Whitaker is brilliant, and Oyelowo and Yaya Alafia (as Louis’s girlfriend) are electrifying as an idealistic young couple willing to risk their lives for the civil rights movement.
An ensemble cast depicting secondary characters is a little less reliable. Daniels chose to cast well-known actors in the roles of the presidents, but in the case of John Cusack and Robin Williams (who play Eisenhower and Nixon), their personalities overwhelm their characters. Liev Shreiber (Lyndon Johnson), James Marsden (John F. Kennedy), Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan) and Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan) are more convincing in their roles. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz are also engaging as Cecil’s White House coworkers, while Terrence Howard embraces his role as a sleazy neighbor in Gloria and Cecil’s social circle.
The Butler will likely clean up come awards season; it’s got all the components that the Academy loves. It boasts an all-star cast and it dares to shed light on ugly subject matter. Mainstream audiences will eat it up, but more discerning film fans will recognize that they have been forcibly spoon-fed the material. That being said, the film will probably be enlightening for those who are young enough that they take for granted the fact that we have a black man serving as President of the United States today. – Shannon