There is always much to say about a Lee Daniels film, so full they are of contradictory passions and sudden shifts in tone. Maybe the easiest thing to do is to pronounce him sui generis, a Tarantinoesque figure you are inclined to love or hate, or to argue that his movies - like the work of that other problematic auteur Tyler Perry - somehow render all attempted criticism beside the point. But we want to be careful not to ghettoize Daniels as a “black filmmaker,” for that would imply that this most colorful filmmaker has an audience monolithic and monochromatic, and that would simply be wrong.
So maybe the place to start with Lee Daniels’ The Butler - the awkwardness of the name was not forced by directorial vanity but by a silly squabble between The Weinstein Co. and Warner Bros., which owns the rights to a 1916 silent short called The Butler - is with my major misgivings. The film is, in the conventional and lamentable 21st-century Hollywood mode, so overt and obvious that at times it feels like a parody of historical drama. Our main protagonist, a tower of gravitas named Cecil Gaines and played by the inimitable Forest Whitaker, is placed in position to watch the unfolding of the American struggle for civil rights from the murder of Emmett Till to the election of Barack Obama. And like Woody Allen’s Zelig or Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump, he - or his rambunctious son (David Oyelowo) - is in the background of a great many signal events, including the assassinations of John F.
Kennedy (James Marsden) and Martin Luther King Jr. (Nelsan Ellis).
The terrible bluntness to the screenplay is compounded by the filmmakers’ insistence that it is “inspired by a true story,” which the cynical are free to read as “has no basis whatsoever in fact.” But the truth is the story is freely adapted from a Washington Post report about a man named Eugene Allen who worked at the White House for 34 years, starting as a “pantry man” in 1956 and retiring in 1986 as the head butler. Some incidents from Allen’s life are folded into the script, and a melancholy irony that occurs deep in the film apparently actually happened, but for the most part Gaines’ story is an invention, and not a particularly original one at that. You find yourself able to guess the general arc of the movie and Gaines’ remarkably slow evolution from apolitical get-alonger to Mandela-esque speaker of truth. Having read a bit about Allen (who died in 2010 at the age of 90), I wonder if he’d have embraced some of this movie’s more fanciful flights.
Still, after a nearly disastrous beginning set in 1926,in which a Georgian planter straight out of the aforementioned Tarantino’s oeuvre (Alex Pettyfer, leading an impressive lineup of cameos) rapes young Gaines’ mother (Mariah Carey, unrecognizable once more) and murders his father (in full view of dozens of field hands who are obviously so powerless that they don’t dare react to these atrocities), the young boy is taken into the house by the master barbarian’s slightly less evil mother (Vanessa Redgrave). There she teaches him to be invisible whilst serving the white folks,a skill set he will put to excellent use in the years ahead.
Soon enough, Gaines has grown into a young man who leaves the old home place and wanders penniless through a dark and rainy South where the lynched hang about on street corners as warnings to the shiftless and uppity. He starves until a fateful night when in desperation he smashes the window of a hotel in order to nosh on cake. He’s discovered by the kindly (black) maitre d’hotel, who notices the young Jean Valjean’s fine manners. Instead of having him arrested, he gives him a job and completes his education in the service arts before sending him off to a big hotel in Washington where he can be discovered by the white man who hires the White House help.
Then the movie does what movies rarely do after slow starts - it gets better, in part because Daniels’ casting choices range from interesting (Robin Williams mercifully underplays it as DwightDavid Eisenhower) to risible (John Cusack and Liev Schreiber have fun as, respectively, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson) to remarkable (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda are pitch-perfect as Ron and Nancy Reagan). Whitaker, as expected, is alternately commanding and vulnerable as Gaines, while Oprah Winfrey is fine as his wife, Gloria, who overcomes some problems of her own.
And while his journey seems every bit as unlikely and filled with serendipity as his father’s, the course that Gaines’ son Louis (Oyelowo) charts through the ’60s and ’70s allows for a masterful set-piece in which the director cuts between preparations for a state dinner in the White House and a sit-in at a Birmingham, Ala., lunch counter.
On the credit side, Daniels seems determined to, for once, tell the story of America’s reckoning with race from the side of the oppressed without introducing any great white empaths (not even JFK emerges as a saint). But not even some wonderfully fine-tuned acting (chiefly from Whitaker, Winfrey and Oyelowo) can completely rescue what is ultimately a deadly predictable and unsubtle movie.
I suppose a countervailing argument can be made to the effect that Americans have little interest in their own history, and every generation tends to be especially dismissive of the most recent past. I do not believe that most young people think or care much about the events touched on in this drama, and that Daniels might be providing a service. After all, lynchings and murders not only occurred, but went un-investigated and unpunished. The Black Panthers were a real thing.
But it is possible to do better with these materials, and the identity of the storyteller ought not figure too much in our evaluation of the story. Daniels is talented, but undisciplined, and he consistently makes choices that undermine the effectiveness of his art.His Butler is very nearly a bad movie, although it is also one of those movies that invariably engenders Oscar talk.
This ought to make us sad. Because some people think this is what movies are - dumb and blunt delivery systems that don’t require us to do more than absorb their pat lessons. Those people should see Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station.
Or maybe read Jack Butler’s Jujitsu for Christ, a 1986 novel recently reissued by the University of Mississippi Press. While Jujitsu is probably too rich in incident and detail to ever be made into a movie (although it would make an excellent episodic HBO drama), it addresses much of the same material that Daniels means to cover here, with afire and fidelity that led one reviewer to conclude that he knew “two things about Jack Butler. He’s black, and he’s angry.”
That the professorial Butler was - and is - neither, is kind of the point.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler 83 Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, James Marsden, Robin Williams, Jane Fonda, Nelsan Ellis Director: Lee Daniels Rating: PG-13, for violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking Running time: 132 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 08/16/2013
Print Headline: Disservice to history/The Butler doesn’t deliver the facts truthfully