“I always loved servin’.”
LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER by Lee Daniels is the new one from crazy fuckin Lee Daniels, and I know what you’re thinking: thank God a Warner Brothers claim with the MPAA forced them to include “LEE DANIELS'” in the title at 75% the size of THE BUTLER, because otherwise I would’ve assumed that this modern movie with Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey on the cover is the lost silent short from 1916 THE BUTLER. I mean, who wouldn’t? It would be an easy mistake to make.
Also I know what Lee Daniels is thinking: that’s pretty cool that some crazy corporate bullshit that makes no sense caused me to get my name in the title like WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE or JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES.
It’s rare that I know what Lee Daniels is thinking, because he seems to be a unique brew of talent, bad taste and craziness, with unclear borders between the three territories. In interviews he seems like a nice, normal guy, but come on man, I’ve seen SHADOWBOXER. His style is an entertaining type of puzzling on that one and PRECIOUS, less so on THE PAPERBOY, although that had its moments. LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER is his Weinstein Company Oscar bait movie, and it has Oprah in it, so it’s his most restrained movie so far, with very little rape and nobody peeing on anybody. But I think it has trace elements of his wicked sense of humor, or whatever that is that he has. It kinda doesn’t work, but I kinda like it anyway.
Forest Ghost Dog Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a butler at the White House spanning the Eisenhower administration to Reagan. I thought it was based on a real guy but it turns out it was only inspired by an article about a real White House butler who worked for a similar length of time and was excited to vote for Obama shortly before he died. It doesn’t use the guy’s actual name or life story.
Like that scene in PRECIOUS BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE where she steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken, this is full of stuff that we’d rightfully assume the worst of if it was made by a white dude. Since it’s a black director we’re forced to search deeper. The Butler’s origin story happens on a cotton field where he and his parents work when he’s a little kid. Of course this is long after slavery, but it seems about the same. When a white boss (Alex Pettyfer, MAGIC MIKE) takes his mom (Mariah Carey, PRECIOUS) away to rape, Cecil convinces his dad (the rapper David Banner, who also writes about movies under the name FILMCRIT HULK) to take a stand. All he can muster is a disappointed, “Eyyyyy,” as in “Hey, easy now buddy, that’s my wife.” For that he gets shot point blank in the head.
But don’t worry, Vanessa Redgrave is there. She’s been watching this whole thing disapprovingly, and now she’s gonna step in to help, like the white girl in THE HELP. She tells the other workers to dig a hole for the body and tells Cecil to come with her, she’s gonna make him a “house nigger.” What a kind old white lady! See, they weren’t all so bad.
So Cecil starts learning how to serve the white man. The most ingenious part is the way the music sounds all magical and shit like he’s at Hogwarts. Like he’s going on an exciting adventure. Interviews I’ve heard with Daniels don’t seem to support my reading, but it really seemed to me like the beginning part of this movie is made to fuck with the type of white people that go to movies like this or THE HELP. Cecil’s butlering sensei (Clarence Williams III) tells him “You have to be non-threatening,” he is literally training to be a non-threatening black man. I was hoping all this practice would get him an invitation to an international underground butlering tournament, but instead he gets called up to the White House. There he’s taught to be completely apolitical and that “The room should feel…”
“…empty when I’m in it,” he finishes. To us that sounds terrible, like the politicians aren’t supposed to notice that the black man exists. To The Butler, though, it’s a ninja invisibility technique.
Once he’s established at the White House it becomes a whole different movie, not a sarcastic one about how great it is to serve Whitey. Now it’s mostly about his son Louis (David Oyelowo, THE PAPERBOY), who rejects servitude and sort of FORREST GUMPs his way through the civil rights movement greatest hits collection. They don’t composite him into famous stock footage, but they pretend he was there at the lunch counter sit-ins, on the Freedom Rider bus that got torched. They have him working closely with Martin Luther King, Jr., then becoming a Black Panther, then going to school and running for office.
Louis getting pelted with food, beaten, fire hosed and arrested is intercut with Cecil serving food and champagne to white politicians. While the son fights the father passively holds trays of cookies for white tourists and tries to hide his reactions when he hears presidents talking about segregation policy or something like that (which seems to happen alot). Louis believes in activism, Cecil believes in being polite. They can’t see eye to eye, and it comes to a head one night when they have dinner together. Cecil is flabbergasted when Louis disses Sidney Poitier for being the black actor the white people like. He disowns his son for calling him an Uncle Tom and having a girlfriend (Yaya Alafia, TRON LEGACY) who burps.
Cecil does have one fight: prompted by Vice President Nixon (John Cusack, THE PAPERBOY) about what “Negros” want, another butler played by Lenny Kravitz (PRECIOUS) points out that the black White House staff get paid less and don’t get promotions that they deserve. Since Nixon breaks his promise to fix this (I’m sure he was planning to later in his second term) Cecil brings it up to his boss periodically over the years, never getting anywhere.
So what you have is a guy who seems to be the main character but who spends most of the movie stubbornly refusing to take action and being mad at the young folks for trying to make the world better. Don’t they know there’s no politics at the White House? Only when he’s real old (DRAMA SPOILER) does he maybe realize that his son is right and join him in civil disobedience. He literally was at beck and call for the system and it never paid him back, why was he always so protective of it? It’s an interesting symbol for a common generational and philosophical difference, but it feels weird as storytelling. It’s not really a “here’s what it’s like to be a butler at the White House” movie, it doesn’t go into the odd details of the job, or get deep enough into his world to force you into his perspective. While his son is risking his life through pacifism the title character is so passive he almost feels like a prop in his own story, a cautionary example more than a protagonist.
One scene says otherwise, though: No less than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Nelsan Ellis, who played a waiter in THE HELP) shames Louis for disrespecting his dad’s profession, talking up “the black domestic”‘s importance for showing white people examples of polite, hard working black people in their own homes.
The stunt-casted presidents are pretty funny. Serious Mode Robin Williams briefly appears as Eisenhower, Cusack is weird but not as bad as I expected as Nixon (maybe it’s the fake nose), James Marsden is pretty good as JFK (“They say this new white boy is smooth.”) The weirdest is Alan Rickman as Reagan (with Jane Fonda as Nancy). I like that the best action movie villain of the ’80s plays the president who saw the world as an action movie. Unfortunately Rickman’s take is kind of middle of the road. He looks better than he sounds.
They choose to focus on Reagan’s most blatant race-related blunder, vetoing the anti-apartheid act (as mentioned recently in my LETHAL WEAPON 2 review), although they don’t really go into his reasoning. Not wanting to totally smear him though there’s an awkward moment where Cecil is quitting and as he walks away Reagan stops him to tell him he thinks he might’ve made the wrong decision on that apartheid thing. He doesn’t seem to think Cecil is quitting in protest or anything. It comes off more like, “Hey, you’re a black guy. Let me ask you this…”
As usual in a Lee Daniels movie there are alot of interesting actors here. Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. (SHADOWBOXER) are a welcome presence as Cecil’s less uptight butlering colleagues, though it’s not clear what makes Cecil more worthy of a movie than these guys who were there before him. Oprah is quite good as his wife, kinda profane, upset at times, but not as overwrought as you might worry she would be. Terence Howard has a good-but-I’m-not-sure-what-the-point-is friend of the family character. Man, it’s gotta be rough for him on a set, if he’s not bending over backwards to do exactly what the director wants he probly gets “Come on Terence, don’t make me call Don Cheadle.”
And of course Whitaker creates a really thorough quiet, stubborn character, showing him from wide-eyed young man to withered, hunched over husk in a windbreaker. I thought he was funny in the scene where he first comes to the White House and excitedly introduces himself to everybody. “I’m Cecil Gaines, I’m the new butler!” For some reason the lady scrubbing the toilet isn’t that excited to meet him.
But in classic Lee Daniels form I’m really unclear about what he’s trying to do here, especially after trying to read up on the subject. To hear Daniels tell it this really is a tribute to the servant class, who he says are his people. It sounds like the father and son are supposed to represent two equally legitimate perspectives. But who would watch this and side with the butler telling his son to shut up and wait for the white president to fix something some day in the distant future? It’s not an appealing viewpoint from the beginning and becomes less reasonable every time a new celebrity president shows up.
What’s more, doesn’t the movie acknowledge at the end that he’s wrong? I mean, he joins his son’s protest because he regrets their strained relationship, not necessarily because Louis was right all along. But he never did get that promotion, did he? His experience doesn’t seem to support the movie’s tagline “One quiet voice can ignite a revolution.”
There’s alot of really interesting stuff in here and some silly stuff. They don’t call it LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER for nothin. Like in all Lee Daniels pictures I don’t think all the pieces fit together correctly, but it works well enough that I gotta admit it was pretty moving to get to the moment where (SPOILER) he walks as a guest, not a servant, into the White House to meet a black president. When he worked there it took decades to get his wife invited to one dinner, and that time he felt like he was being used as a prop. Now he’s got the president wanting to meet him.
If his son ever meets the president though it’ll be to discuss policy.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.