For the first 15 minutes or so, Lee Daniels’ The Butler feels like the kind of shoddily executed, self-aggrandizing award-season misfire that tends to make me sick to my stomach. By the end of this civil rights-themed biopic, it had almost moved me to tears.
That’s the way it goes with casting director-turned-filmmaker Lee Daniels. His movies tend to careen from tragedy to high camp on their quest for pushing people’s buttons, a God-given talent for the Precious director. At first glance, though, his latest effort, a decades-spanning portrait of an African American servant who was tapped to wait on our Commander in Chief and stayed on the job for over three decades, feels as if the solemn subject matter had overwhelmed Daniels.
The first red flag that was raised for me was screenwriter Danny Strong’s decision to change the name of the real White House butler profiled in a 2008 Washington Post article published three days after Barack Obama’s election. (Word to the wise: “Inspired by a true story” is a euphemism for “massive amount of creative license taken.”) And so, Eugene Allen becomes Cecil Gaines, which I initially regarded as a bit of a cop-out until later in the film.
We begin at a Macon, Ga. cotton plantation in the mid-1920s, where 8-year-old Cecil (Michael Rainey Jr.) helps out Mom (a catatonic Mariah Carey) and Dad (David Banner) in the fields until Thomas (Magic Mike‘s Alex Pettyfer, sorely miscast), their brutish supervisor, goes off with Mama by the shed and then shoots Papa when he confronts the rotten scoundrel about the incident. Thomas’ mother (Vanessa Redgrave) then takes Cecil out of the fields and into her house. “The room should feel empty when you’re in it,” she tells the boy as she grooms him into servitude. Redgrave’s presence aside, these sequences are clumsily staged, downright sloppy at times. The director who coaxed Nicole Kidman into moaning for a convicted killer’s sexual pleasure and peeing on a jellyfish sting-afflicted Zac Efron in last year’s The Paperboy appeared to be missing in action.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler – which is saddled with its movie-of-the-week title following The Weinstein Company’s court battle with Warner Bros. over rights to “The Butler,” the name of a 1916 silent short – takes a while to find its footing, but once Cecil sets foot inside the White House, you get a better sense of Daniels and Strong’s endgame. Cecil, played as an adult by an affecting Forest Whitaker, winds up marrying Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), a maid he met on the job, and tries to be there for their two boys, budding activist Louis (David Oyelowo) and irreverent smart-ass Charlie (Red Tails‘ Elijah Kelley). Once Louis goes off to college and becomes involved in the Deep South’s most contentious civil rights battles, Lee Daniels’ The Butler becomes, in Strong’s parallel narrative structure, a tale of two Americas.
Much like Forrest Gump chronicled the changes in the American counterculture through Jenny, Robin Wright’s calamity magnet, while Tom Hanks’ simpleton gave us the establishment’s perspective, Strong and Daniels utilize Louis’ indefatigable fight-the-power struggle to trace the rise of the civil rights movement in the 60s and 70s. In the film’s most effective sequence, Louis and other college students are taunted, physically assaulted, and then arrested in 1960 when they sit at the lunch counter section reserved for Anglo patrons at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C. Daniels then intercuts the tense display of nonviolent resistance with Cecil serving dinner at the White House. Relieved, I muttered, “Daniels is back.”
The filmmaker has fun – sometimes too much fun – casting A-list names actors to play some of the 20th Century’s most iconic leaders of the free world. Look, there’s Robin Williams painting watercolors as Dwight Eisenhower. And that is most definitely John Cusack cheerfully chewing the scenery as Richard Nixon for some easy laughs. What kind of biopic is Lee Daniels’ The Butler? The kind that makes sure we catch a glimpse of Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber) sitting in the toilet in front of Cecil and other staffers because, well, that’s something Johnson used to do. In other words, it’s a Lee Daniels kind of history lesson, to both its benefit and detriment. Strong, who also turned the book Game Change into an HBO movie, shrewdly allows Martin Luther King Jr. (True Blood‘s Nelsan Ellis) to be the one who tells Louis – and the audience – that his father’s line of work quietly, significantly broke racial barriers.
What ultimately makes Lee Daniels The Butler a rousing collage of the African American experience is not Cecil’s interaction with First Families throughout the decades … though Jane Fonda is spot-on as Nancy Reagan. It’s Cecil’s complicated relationship with his own family that anchors the film. For every ill-conceived dovetailing of a notable historical event with a significant turning point in the Gaines clan – the moment where Louis kisses fellow activist Carol (Yaya Alafia) for the first time at the exact moment Malcolm X is fatally shot mere blocks away is particularly ludicrous – there’s another scene dramatizing the chasm dividing father and son’s conflicting worldviews that eschews the tasteful restraint one may associate with dignified prestige productions dealing with social issues. At heart, Daniels’ film is a deeply moving family melodrama, and the wallop it delivers drowns out the occasionally cringe-inducing sermonizing. Will you feel like you’ve been shamelessly manipulated? Absolutely. But it’s pretty hard to deny Daniels has made a touching crowdpleaser that earns its tears by refusing to pull its punches.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler begins serving movie audiences in wide release starting Friday.