Lee Daniels’s The Butler — a movie by Lee Daniels
Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker star in The Butler
The Butler comprises two movies in one. Both movies are rooted in true stories, one about a man who serves on the White House serving staff from 1954 to 1987, the other about the revolutionary civil rights achievements garnered during the same period.
Director Lee Daniels marries the threads by juxtaposing documentary and documentary-like scenes from famous civil rights initiatives with Presidential discussions about civil rights policy, as overheard by the eponymous butler, Cecil Gaines, busy on his rounds delivering refreshments or engaging in conversation at the request of the appropriate Chief Executive. Daniels also knits the civil rights movement footage and Cecil’s life by placing Cecil’s older son, Louis, as an activist and participant in each civil rights event.
Both movies are vividly presented. You retain an interest in Cecil’s life and a curiosity about doings in the White House. The historical segments remind audiences of the struggles involved in attaining something as basic and obvious as an equal right to the pursuit of happiness.
The problem is neither movie is satisfying. The White House scenes are interesting for the view they extend of ceremony and protocol, but they’re staged like a pageant populated by cameo performances of varying quality and seem to serve only to set up the next historical vignette Daniels hungers to show. The scenes documenting the civil rights movement can’t help but be affecting, but somehow they do not stir emotion. They unfold like a newsreel. You understand what is happening and its importance. You understand that large groups of people took into their own hands a campaign to claim their inalienable rights. But the familiarity of it all, the lack of commentary, and the use of Louis as a participant and witness, but not as someone whose personal story surmounts the events depicted, add up to blandness. You nod in recognition and even think, “Thank goodness stands were made and situations changed. Thank goodness hatred was stopped from triumphing over human dignity,” but you watch as if you were being shown a documentary about these seminal events in a classroom. They register but with no new disgust at mid-20th century racial conditions or admiration for the people who the people who fought to correct them. The scenes are instructive, but that’s about all. They have no life, no dramatic impact.
The reason is Daniels’s juxtapositions don’t work. His White House scenes are “gotchas” to show how officials regarded matters as opposed to how activists took command of them. Even when a President is making a positive move, like Dwight Eisenhower or Lyndon Johnson, Daniels shows them as posturing or fiddling while Birmingham burns. His transitions to civil rights scuffles are ham-handed, blunt and angry but without finesse. Daniels beats you over the head with the civil rights documentary he obviously wants to make. He is so intent on emphasizing events that turned the tide during turbulent years, he goes about his task didactically and pontifically. He doesn’t take the time to engage his audience personally or to let them savor the poignance. His mistake is similar to the one Kathryn Bigelow made in last year’s Zero Dark Thirty. Bigelow told a fine story, but she took the suspense out of it. She made it matter-of-fact instead of gripping. That’s why Ben Affleck and Argo were able to glom their Oscars. Affleck put us on the edge of our seats and made us worry about what might happen in a story the outcome of which we knew.
My feeling is Daniels wanted to make a documentary, found a story he could pin it around, a story about a butler in the White House, and headed hellbent towards history while he left the Presidents, the First Ladies, and Cecil Gaines in the dust as collateral damage.
The most interesting scenes in the Lee Daniels’s The Butler, the movie’s searingly telling official title (although I took the liberty to correct the punctuation), are the domestic passages that show Cecil and his neighbors, or Cecil and his colleagues, meeting at parties and card games at their respective homes.
This is where you see Cecil interacting with his wife and sons. The stony and stormy relationship between Cecil and Louis are other passages that should have some heft but don’t because they are so predictable and so staged for effect. Those scenes play as if Daniels said, “Let’s go into high dudgeon for a moment,” and let everyone turn on their acting software, hamming to go along with his ham-handedness. The scenes Louis plays with Cecil’s White House colleague, Carter Wilson, seem much more honest, more natural, and more touching. Even the final scene between Cecil and Louis for effect, the effect is lost by the audience being able to see how self-consciously the sequence is woven.
I had no problem paying attention to The Butler, and I was interested in a journalistic way in all of its stories, but I was always disappointed in its execution and at how much I felt I was being manipulated by Daniels instead of being involved with the material on the screen.
Daniels did some things right.
History is difficult to relate in a dramatic form. The best way to capture a particular era, place, or event is to concentrate on an individual or group of individuals living the experience as it unfolds. People, after all, care most about people. What happens to a person takes any situation out of the abstract and makes it human.
Daniels was right to borrow Cecil’s story and make Louis an equal focal point of it. He just didn’t make good on the loan. Cecil was not his interest. Nor was Louis. They were devices that gave him the opportunity to bring the history he wanted to stress to the screen. The Butler could have benefited from more art and less schoolmastering.
The acting in The Butler is a mixed bag. Forest Whitaker, one of the finest actors of our time, seems at a loss to give Cecil variety. He goes through scene after scene with the same inert deadpan expression. Yes, Cecil is told that a good butler should not be noticed in the room. His work world is one of studied invisibility (even though every President knows who he is). Whitaker, though, doesn’t bring Cecil out of that shell. We never get to see him as a complete human being, not even when is with his wife and friends. Whitaker can muster some temper during scenes with Louis, and he can raise an eyebrow or offer a wry smile while listening to the President or cabinet members, but those moments scream of acting and direction. Whitaker gives Cecil no heart or soul, too bad because the actor is a master at endowing characters with both.
Oprah Winfrey’s turn as Cecil’s wife, Gloria, is the diametrically opposite number. Winfrey is all raw emotion, a woman who positively drips with personality. As a talk host, Winfrey’s gift was to understand both the average person and her guest at hand. She could commune with the guest while making sure she asked and said everything that was on her audience’s mind.
She is equally intuitive as an actress. She knows her character, and she recognizes the scenes she has to play. This recognition gives her performance reality and gusto. Sometimes it seems as if Winfrey is playing a moment or a specific line instead of a whole character, but she brings breadth and texture to the screen every time she shows up. I don’t think Oprah will get another Oscar nomination for The Butler, but she proves she can hold her own as an actress if she chooses to go that route more frequently.
The best of the principal performances is given by David Oyelowo as Louis. Oyelowo allows you into Louis’s mind. You see the inner working, and you feel Louis’s commitment as opposed to just having the character act dedication. Oyelowo’s is the most natural and most moving portrayal. He is consistent to his character and is able to give it shades during scenes with his father, mother, his girlfriend, Carter, or colleagues in the civil rights movement. Oyelowo was miraculously able to escape the self-consciousness that influences most of his castmates and Daniels’s movie.
Also quite good is Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Carter, a true friend to both Cecil and Louis and one who seems able to put his White House persona aside and lead a normal life away from his formal, ceremonial work. Terrence Howard contributes another of his complete character portraits as a flirtatious and less polished neighbor to the Gaineses.
I was happy to some depth from Gooding. He is currently on Broadway in The Trip to Bountiful, and his performance there seems by the book, serviceable but with few nuances that take the character from the page and make him an individual that does more than go through basic paces on stage. As a result, Gooding fades into the background and doesn’t come up to the wily rejuvenating turn accomplished by Cicely Tyson or the brilliant portrayal of temperament, sense, and ultimate love given by the underrated Vanessa Williams. In The Butler, he stands out from the pack of notable actors that wend their way through the movie.
The cameo performances in The Butler are strange. To many in the audience, the Presidents and First Ladies depicted are immediately memorable. One would think an attempt would be made to cast actors who resembled the White House occupants at hand. Daniels takes no such trouble.
When Robin Williams appears behind the desk in the Oval Office, playing the first President Cecil serves, he looks a lot like Harry Truman. I wondered if I had the time period wrong. I didn’t. Williams was playing Dwight Eisenhower. He did a good job, except he bore no resemblance to the Ike I recall from the 1950s, a man I admire and have studied a lot.
The same is true for Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson and John Cusack as Richard Nixon. Schreiber doesn’t even affect a Texas drawl. He looks nothing like Johnson, whose monumental contribution to civil rights legislation is noted but not made much more special than any other Presidential action. Cusack is too angular and wiry to play Nixon, who is given overdone comic and pathetic moments while also being given one of more astute lines in the movie, one about encouraging black entrepreneurs and non-militant activists.
Alan Rickman is actor enough to register as Ronald Reagan in spite of having no resemblance to the late actor and President. Jane Fonda, as Nancy Reagan, gives the most effective portrayal of a White House resident. In the red suit she is given to wear, Fonda captures Nancy’s posture and facial expressions. She also conveys Nancy’s efficient ease with people. James Marsden as Jack Kennedy exudes that President’s youth and liveliness even as you see Cecil bringing him a slew of pills to cover pain and other ailments. One of Daniels’s good jokes is having JFK cite his brother, Bobby, while telling Cecil how he arrived at a change of opinion on a civil rights matter. In an almost silent performance, Minka Kelly conveys the grief and resolve of Jacqueline Kennedy. In an early cameo, Vanessa Redgrave once again displays her prodigious skill at efficient character building as the owner of a cotton plantation.
The Butler had potential, but it squanders many of its gifts on superficiality and self-consciousness.