Lee Daniels' The Butler has every intention of being an important movie. That and fishing quite obviously for some Oscar love, are the clear mandates for Daniels, who serves up a chunky slice of civil rights history and a real life story demanding of proper big screen treatment. The tale of Eugene Allen, White House butler through eight Presidential administrations, is an incredible one in its own right, but Daniels feels the need to turn the film into a distracting cameo-filled spectacle that takes the "Forrest Gump" approach to black history.
Who needs realism when you can just litter the screen with celebrities, Daniels hitting up everyone on his speed dial, or calling in every favor he's ever been owed. It's the only excuse for such poor stunt-casting as John Cusack stammering and sweating his way through as Richard Nixon, which is only moderately worse than Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson, which doesn't come close to how awful Robin Williams is as Dwight Eisenhower. Yet they all pale in comparison to Nelsan Ellis, the True Blood stand-out who is woefully miscast as Martin Luther King, Jr. These are self-indulgent decisions borne out of Daniels' need to show off, and make sure the audience is so enamored by the star power they fail to notice the film's lack of emotional connection.
The story of White House butler Eugene Allen was first chronicled in a 2008 article in The Washington Post, detailing his amazing career watching the civil rights movement from the most unique of vantage points. But Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong take that amazing life and broadly fictionalize it to create the character Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who we meet as a young boy in 1927 working on a plantation where he sees his mother (a barely recognizable Mariah Carey) raped by the owner (Alex Pettyfer), and his father (yes that's David Banner) shot for complaining about it. Breaking free of the racist confines only to find an entire world of it beyond the fence, Cecil lucks into a job as a hotel butler, proving himself such a reliable and capable worker the White House comes calling for him to work under their employ.
Jumping forward in time to his life in DC, where he's married the alcoholic Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), Cecil battles frequently with his rabble-rousing son Louis (David Oyelowo). Cecil’s passivity clashes angrily with his son’s civil rights activism. He's content in his duties as a butler, finding normalcy and respect in taking care of others. A product of his time, Cecil is content not to rock the boat, and talks about the "two faces" black people must wear: the one they keep in secret, and the other they show to the white man. One must remain "non-threatening", and certainly that's what the apolitical Cecil does while time skips on past him.
The film pays lip service to a number of key moments in civil rights history: the Woolworth's sit-in; the murder of Emmett Till; and Dr. King's assassination, but they serve as mere markers in time and nothing more. Most of these events are experienced by Louis, who follows the straight-line path from activist to Freedom Rider to member of the Black Panthers, his Forrest Gump-trek through history even including his being in Memphis on that fateful day on April 4th 1968. Meanwhile Cecil's life doesn't really change, even as Presidents come and go.
As played by Whitaker, Cecil is a humble man of fierce integrity, who picks and chooses which battles are worth fighting. There's nuance in the portrayal even as Daniels and Strong's screenplay is as subtle as a ripsaw. They do occasionally find a few interesting wrinkles in the often-bitter relationship between Cecil and Gloria, the latter growing lonely and spiteful at her husband's constant absence. Oprah is a powerful presence on screen, and she benefits from one of the few characters given something substantial to work with as Gloria battles her personal demons while refereeing the disputes between father and son. We see how the years wear them down physically and spiritually, and their connection to one another alters believably over time, until a sudden 180-degree turn towards activism by Cecil that doesn't feel earned at all.
In a way it's laughable the court-mandated title change to Lee Daniels' The Butler, because Daniels' directorial signature is to have no signature at all. There's no question he can round up an A-list cast with the best of them, but as a filmmaker calling him "mediocre" would be a gift. Tonally, the film is a mess that relies on emotional manipulation, in much the same way Daniels' Precious did to baffling acclaim years ago. Missed opportunities for poignancy abound, such as a birthday party that is marred by some truly devastating news that tears the Gaines family asunder. While Oprah and Whitaker are devastatingly effective, the tragedy is telegraphed from so far away it might have been in the concession line.
It's hard to imagine that such a lousy script comes from Danny Strong, who wrote the brilliant and forceful political dramas Recount and Game Change. So much about The Butler is undercooked and drawn in the thickest lines possible, that one can only assume Daniels' rewrite was all-encompassing. The historical facts are played with to put Cecil in places he couldn't have been (a scene with Jackie Kennedy particularly egregious), and suggests that a few mere words from him were enough to move Presidential policy. It's a ridiculous notion that adds to the pure fantasy of the piece. A couple of years ago, some critics piled on Best Picture nominee The Help for not presenting a realistic portrayal of southern racism, and one wonders how those same people will react to The Butler, which glosses over racism just the same.
Barack Obama's candidacy in 2008 proves to be the film's most affecting moment as we see Cecil and Gloria's taking in a sight impossible for them to fathom. But it relies mostly on archival footage of the campaign, and Obama's soaring, hopeful words rather than anything Daniels has to offer.
Lee Daniels' The Butler is neither effective as a history lesson or as crowd-pleasing civil rights drama. Daniels’ good intention overshadowed by the need to be Oscar-worthy, the film unfortunately does a disservice to Eugene Allen's story, and hopefully a better filmmaker will take up the cause some day.