Lee Daniels’ The Butler is nearly a critic-proof film. Its subject matter—a real-life butler who served a number of presidents in the White House—has been tied inextricably into the greater battle for civil rights for African-Americans. That’s the source of its power, and is at the core of some of its weaknesses.
The film is definitely inspirational, more than well acted, and touching. It’s the story of personal overcoming, of doing more than surviving—all coupled with an agonizing struggle against racial prejudice and hatred. Wrapping the two together turns a human story into a political one, diluting the human drama at the expense of a rallying cry, and creating a strong defense against criticism in the process.
First, that awkward title. Apparently the Warner Bros. 1916 silent film—a comedy short, no less—called The Butler is still such a part of our collective artistic consciousness that we’d be confused by a 2013 color and sound film of the same name. Seriously, I have no idea why that couldn’t be worked out amicably, but I am tempted to sue Warners myself for having foisted such an awkward title on the American public. To paraphrase Mr. Knightly to Emma in Emma, “Badly done, Warners. Badly done.”
The film’s strengths are obvious and subtle. What’s obvious are the many fine and several OK actors. First is the national treasure known as Forest Whitaker, last enjoying an Oscar for playing Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. He’ll likely be nominated again here for his role as Cecil Gaines, the butler. These two performances show the breadth as well as the depth of this great actor; no two characters could be more diametrically opposed. It’s simultaneously subtle and passionate, and while he is not always helped by the script, he breathes life and shading to his character at every turn.
As anyone who has read Word One about this knows, the most influential and possible richest woman in the world is playing Cecil’s wife Gloria. Much has been made of her return to acting, and her presence certainly can’t be ignored. For a celebrity, Oprah is a real actress, and her performance here respects both the material and the character. But one can’t for a second pretend that we’re not watching OPRAH! acting. Happily, she is good enough to keep the distraction to a minimum. As in her last outing in The Color Purple, she’ll likely be nominated for an Oscar because she’s Oprah. Whether she will deserve the award or nomination remains to be seen at this point.
What’s also obvious but which works much less successfully is the parade of famous faces in cameo roles. The supporting work of many of our best actors is more than fine: Cuba Gooding, Jr.; Terrance Howard; David Oyelolo, and even Lenny Kravitz. It’s the cameos that lend gravitas and distraction. Wait, isn’t that legend Vanessa Redgrave? Yes, it is, but that’s OK, because she’s a world-class actress who disappears in her roles. Robin Williams as Eisenhower? Far too distracting. James Marsden as John Kennedy—that one works, as Marsden is not as famous as he should be, and he disappears into the part as much as he can. John Cusack as Nixon? Live Schreiber as LBJ? Alan Rickman as Reagan? Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan? Their presence adds weight to the film as well as political street cred to their personae, but is a constant distraction (“Wow, look how much Jane looks like Nancy!”) Mariah Carey as Cecil’s mother? While she was more than fine in Lee Daniels’ Precious, her presence here is part of the Parade of Stars that keep impressing us with their participation while continually pulling us out of the film.
The more subtle success of the film is one that it also tends to overplay. The film’s brilliant point is that what a White House butler accomplished in both his life and work is every bit as distinctive and progressive as the more active civil rights workers of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Happily for politics but unhappily for art, the film overplays that hand in two ways. One, it ties in Gaines’ story to that of his son, who becomes a kind of Forrest Gump of the civil rights movement. The contrast and tension of the two stories is regularly demonstrated by cross-cutting between the elegant world of the White House and the rough-and-tumble realities of the beatings, harassments and outright violence against the civil rights workers. The cutting is effective in suggesting ironic contrast, but the film isn’t quite sure what it wants to be saying. We don’t disrespect Cecil and what he’s doing; we actually admire it. We also respect his son and the efforts of all those struggling against discrimination and segregation. The contrast is a little too easy to make and yet not quite precise enough in what it’s suggesting. The film’s stance could have been clarified in the specific tensions between father and son, but again, there is heat without a lot of light in those exchanges as son moves further into revolutionary causes, and various strains arise between father and son. What remain, though, are a respect for the efforts of both, and a distaste for disrespecting one’s elders and the move by some from resistance to violence. The contrast between the approaches of father and son strains a bit as Gaines evolves realistically as a man growing through middle age while his son and girlfriend are given an increasingly caricaturist presentation as they lose their individuality to slogans instead of dialogue and a parade of clichéd hats and hairstyles.
The other tension that nearly breaks the film is the climax of the film, where the two strands—Gaines’ life and the civil rights struggle—come together in the election of President Obama. The election of a half-black man is a ready-made and obvious culmination connecting the life of a White House butler and the struggle of the African-American to achieve parity on every level with whites. Perhaps too ready-made. On a cultural and political level, every white American should see this and get some insight into the black experience in America. On a film level, the ending overplays its hand and comes off as a rousing advertisement for the current president, after working so hard to present the previous executive leaders as real people who figure prominently but temporarily into the life of our central character. For those watching the parade of presidents and who are completely sympathetic with the civil rights movement, yet have reservations about this president’s policies, the knee-bending at the end of the film is a bit much and nearly tears the story away from Gaines’ life. Happily there is a Hail Mary pass at the end that refocuses the film back on Gaines, but the damage has already been done, and it leaves the film frayed at the edges.
The film is strongest when it stays personal, and sets its personal story within the context of what’s happening OUT THERE. While the son’s story and efforts could have been supportive and evocative with Gaines’ personal story in the forefront, instead it takes up too much time and focus, and more is clearly less here. Ironically, a more subtle and quieter presence of the son’s civil rights work would have resulted in a stronger and more powerful film. As it stands, Lee Daniels’ The Butler will be remembered for Oprah, too much star power, and a commanding, for-the-ages central performance.