Lee Daniels is known to be an envelope pusher, for better (Precious) or for worse (The Paperboy). When it was announced that he’d be the director for a “based on a true story” film about White House butler Eugene Allen it was easy to raise your eyebrows. Historical dramas are hard to nail and historical dramas about race are even tougher.
Daniels’ style is rife with melodrama and big emotions that can work either perfectly or take things way too far. He’s a director that has little restraint and takes big risks. Sometimes he succeeds and other times he doesn’t. Lee Daniels’ The Butler (his name is there for copyright reasons) is a perfect example of his strengths and faults in a single movie.
Director: Lee Daniels
Release Date: August 16, 2013
To start off, this story isn’t exactly true. Yes, there was a butler who worked at the White House for 34 years, but almost everything else is made up. Even the names are changed as Eugene Allen becomes Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) and his wife becomes Gloria Gaines (Oprah Winfrey). That’s not a knock against the film for changing things up, but it’s important to know that much of what appears on screen is more about telling a social history instead of a single man’s. How accurate that social history is is also up for a bit of debate, but the idea behind The Butler is not to tell the story of the butler, but instead to tell the story of the civil rights movement.
The film does follow Cecil Gaines through most of his life as he is raised on a cotton farm and learns how to be a butler after his father is shot in front of him. He moves to DC eventually and gets a job at a high end hotel where he is noticed by a white White House employee who eventually recommends him for a job at the White House. He then lives and works through the presidencies of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan. All this time dealing with struggles at home as his son, Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes involved in the civil rights movement and his wife feels like she’s playing second fiddle to the White House, at one point accusing him of knowing how many pairs of shoes Jackie Kennedy owns.
It is a truly grand story arc and, thanks in part to its subject matter, can be wonderfully emotional. When The Butler is working Daniel’s outlandish style works, pulling emotions from the characters and the world to address the social tensions on the screen. There’s a lot of power built up in this film. Unfortunately, it’s not always released. The screenplay can be incredibly clunky and cheesy at times as Daniels tries too hard to hammer home a message. The film’s more than two hour running time doesn’t help either. Without much restraint on what he’s doing the movie starts to twist and turn in sentimentality instead of hammering home its message. A bit of editing would have gone a long way in making this film a truly powerful piece of cinema.
A lot of that is the screenplay’s fault, which often lacks any sense of subtlety. It must be said that the actors do the best they can with some pretty cardboard lines. As you would expect both Whitaker and Oyelowo are fantastic in their roles, but the big surprise is how stirring Winfrey can be. She’s never been a truly terrible actress, but she’s often Oscar worthy in this film. Despite Gloria being a side character to the bigger father/son story she steals many scenes.
There a few other scene stealers in the film in the form of famous people playing presidents (Robin Williams as Eisenhower; John Cusack as Nixon; James Marsden as Kennedy; Liev Schrieber as LBJ, Alan Rickman as Reagan). These “oh my, look who it is” performances are fun to see, but they also take you well out of the film itself. Each actor seems to be playing more of a caricature of their president and it makes many truly important moments in history feel less than. In a movie where emotions and social issues are pushed so hard it becomes jarring to have a famous actor hopping into a role that would have been better served by someone less recognizable.
The main thrust of the film isn’t about these presidential cameos, however. In fact it isn’t even about Cecil Gaines. He’s just the man in the middle of history. He is the weight that keeps the movie focused in one place as everything occurs around him. This tactic is both good and bad. It allows the film to focus more on the history, but it also means that the main character does almost nothing to drive the story forward. He’s a non-factor and in reality his son is the person making the moves. Their relationship, which falls apart over the course of the film, is one of the best aspects of the movie and definitely the most tear jerking, but it’s more of an excuse to have someone who is amazingly at every single civil rights moment in American history. The real Cecil Gaines doesn’t even have a son who did all these things.
The Butler, then, is even more so not about the butler himself. He is a non-factor in a world that moves around him. It’s still a emotionally charged and powerful world, though. There’s plenty of punch that this movie packs and as a social commentary it’s definitely interesting. It’s just too bad that no one reeled in Daniels’ direction as he too often lets the film turn into a sermon instead of a lesson. The Butler will tug at your heart strings, but after about the 80th time it tries to do it you’ll know the trick.