Saturday, September 21, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler: A Review (Review #570)


I am going to defy a studio by calling this film The Butler rather than Lee Daniels' The Butler, though for legal reasons it appears we have to at least in the beginning start calling it Lee Daniels' The Butler.  Something to do with Warner Brothers holding the rights to the title "The Butler" dating from a 1916 short film.  Now, while I enjoy silent films AND am generally pleased that a film almost a hundred years is still in existence, I very much doubt there will be some kind of confusion in the general audiences mind between THAT The Butler and THIS The Butler.  It does seem rather petty to hold the title hostage, but there it is.

Lee Daniels' The Butler is a respectable effort to chronicle the Twentieth Century African-American experience from Emmitt Till's brutal murder to Barack Obama's ascendency to the White House.  I don't fault the noble intentions, but what I saw was a film that was telling two stories and could never quite find a way to get both of them together. 

Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker) is at the White House, waiting to be received.  As he sits patiently, he has time to reflect on his epic journey.  Gaines starts in Georgia on the 'plantation' he came from, where the owner of said 'plantation' Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer) rapes Gaines' mother (MARIAH!) and shoots his father in cold blood for objecting.  The Widow Westfall (Hamas' grande dame Vanessa Redgrave) as a way to make up for all this takes Cecil and trains him to be a house...well, a euphemism is used which I won't use under any circumstances.  

Eventually, Cecil leaves and works his way to Washington, D.C., having been further trained in a hotel by Maynard (Clarence Williams III), who is something of a mentor to Cecil in the art of serving.  His most important lesson?  Never make yourself known, basically keep quiet and be at the ready, keep your views to yourself.  Cecil's excellent manners, especially in the art of diplomatic treatment of the whites whose casual racism he must endure, catch the attention of a scout for the White House, and Cecil soon finds himself as a butler in the Executive Mansion.  Among the new co-workers he soon joins with are fellow butlers Carter (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and James (Lenny Kravitz).  By this time Cecil is also married to Gloria (OPRAH!) and has two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelly). 

Louis is the most rebellious of his two sons.  He is a passionate civil rights advocate, his time at Fisk University causing a great awakening as to the injustice of segregation.  Louis takes part in sit-ins, in Freedom Rides, and eventually both is with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) when he is assassinated and joins the Black Panthers.  This does not sit well with his father, who fears causing agitation of any kind, in particular since he works for the President of the United States.  However, Cecil is there to observe how various Presidents deal with the growing civil rights movement, starting from President Eisenhower (Robin Williams), to Presidents John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schrieber), Richard Nixon (John Cusask) to Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman).  Ford and Carter were not portrayed, probably because in the words of Old Mr. Grace from Are You Being Served? "I expect (they) were too boring!" 

Cecil has many problems at home.  Gloria is an alcoholic who at one point has an affair with Howard (Terrence Howard), their numbers-running smooth neighbor.  Whether Cecil ever learned of the affair I cannot remember.  Louis is constantly agitating for more social justice, while Charlie is drafted to Vietnam (although he seems eager to go).  Charlie is promptly killed off, so now the family strains continue within the Gaines family.  Eventually, Cecil retires from the White House during the Reagan Administration for a variety of reasons: he is getting on in years, he has succeeded in creating pay parity with the white staff under Ronnie's watch (begging the question why the pay discrepancy between black and white employees was not addressed earlier) and Reagan threatens to veto any legislation that punishes South Africa for apartheid.

Cecil and Louis eventually reconcile, during those heady days when Barack Obama is swept into power.  Cecil, like First Lady Michelle Obama, for the first time in his life is proud of his country.   Although he is now a widower, Cecil now has his son back and The Butler ends with the newly elected first African-American President waiting in the Oval Office to receive him.  He may be very old, barely able to walk, but he brushes away the Usher, coolly informing him he knows EXACTLY where The President's office is.  

There have been comparisons between The Butler and Forrest Gump in that both leads were at the center of history, observing things around them that few of us were/are privy to.  There is a major difference between Gaines and Gump though, in that the latter at least DID things that affected history, while the latter did little to nothing despite being at the center of it all.  In part I can't blame The Butler for making it so, since the staff are discouraged from being politically active.  "The White House has no place for politics", the Chief Usher tells Gaines.  However, my problem with The Butler (and it's a biggie) is that it is really two films uncomfortably put together.  You have the domestic drama of the Gaines', a family living out the tumultuous times they are in: from Little Rock to Selma to Memphis to Black Power to Reaganomics to Obama-Wan Kenobi (Our Only Hope) with some infidelity, some neglect, and some father-son dynamic.  Then you have the Backstairs at the White House story, where our lead observes the most powerful men in the world grapple with civil rights (because in the years between 1957 and 1986, nothing of note really happened in the world apart from civil rights).  No, I can't blame screenwriter Danny Strong from making civil rights the focus of The Butler, but I can blame it for putting in so much history in it to where the various Administrations are almost blips, getting little hints of major events with no context.   

Take Nixon's fall from power.  The President, who had known the staff for years as Eisenhower's Vice President as well as in his term as Commander-in-Chief, is crumbling due to Watergate.  Since we've never seen this tortured, suspicious, almost paranoid figure do much, when he calls Cecil over to stay with him for a minute or two, neither man appears altogether human or real.  I imagine Cecil had a barely concealed contempt for Nixon, this disheveled man days from having to resign in disgrace.  Reagan's veto threat on imposing sanctions on South Africa are not given a reason: his overwhelming fear that South Africa would turn Red, or at least Pink.  His top priority were to stop and bring down Communism and its sympathizers, so his actions had a reason.  The Butler subtly suggests Reagan is a bigot, which is far from the truth.

I found that The Butler had an uneven nature where the contrasts between Cecil and Louis were almost parody: the father more willing to go along to get along, the son passionately fighting for rights.  In particular Louis existed just to hit the historic points the screenplay wanted noted (I just wondered how ANYONE who had been with Dr. King when he was killed could possibly LOSE a local election.  Haven't they heard of Representative John Lewis?)  The screenplay did not have actual people, but stock characters: the drunk wife, the silent father, the rebellious son, the son who exists only to get killed off.  Would it have really been terrible if Charlie had lived? 

In short, what The Butler had was characters, not real people.  Given that the film was based on the true-life story of White House maitre'd Eugene Allen, it seems bizarre, almost unfair, to be so blatant in its imagery (the film opens with a lynching and the American flag prominently displayed in the background, a non-too-subtle reminder that at heart, America is racist) and overt partisanship (in the final part of the film, I thought director Lee Daniels had slipped in an Obama commercial into the movie given how wildly passionate The Butler and the ex-butler were at his candidacy.  I don't know anyone who went to the polling place every day to see where they would cast their ballot for then-Senator Obama, but there it is).

The heavy-handedness of it all was most horrifying in the opening.  I wondered whether the film took place in 1926 or 1826, given how openly Westfall dragged a meek Hattie to the shack to rape her in front of all those picking cotton, or how easily Westfall could shoot a man down and not answer for it.  In terms of the murder that is not beyond believability, but the scene seemed to come more from Roots than from a more contemporary setting.   (This is why I refer to this as a 'plantation' rather than a sharecropping farm because it seems so over-the-top it is another moment where subtlety would have worked best).  

In fairness, sometimes the duality The Butler shows works.  A particularly effective scene is contrasting the sit-in with a state dinner in the Eisenhower years.  As the formal, lavish affair is going on, the violence visited on the brave men and women who are being brutalized at the whites-only counter is a great counterpoint.   The sequence where the Freedom Riders are attacked by a KKK mob is equally effective in its terror.  However, these moments are few and far between, as the film hammers its story without concern whether it makes sense (given that Louis appears so single-minded in achieving equality, when he has a romantic moment I was confused: hadn't they been dating ALREADY?) 

In terms of acting I can't find much at fault with the leads.  The Butler is really Whitaker's show, and he does a marvelous job as the silent Cecil, whose long journey has brought him from the cotton fields to the White House and the election of a black President within his lifetime.  Whitaker has a great calm in his Cecil, but one who is also troubled more by his family issues than with the major events he is witnessing.  I don't understand the praise OPRAH is getting for her Gloria; her character was a bit underwritten (the drunk wife constantly angry at her husband until he actually manages to be a guest at a White House dinner) but while it wasn't a bad performance I don't think it Oscar-worthy.  Oyelowo was all fire-and-brimstone as the angry agitator Louis, but his character strikes me as perpetually unhappy.  He is so serious that I don't think Louis ever had a light moment, a laugh or a smile.  Brings to mind a line from Morrissey's Sheila Take A Bow: "How can someone so young sing words so sad?"

Sadly, because The Butler never quite decided to be a behind-the-scenes film or a family drama, when Cecil's coworkers turn out to also be his friends, I was genuinely surprised they associated after hours. 

Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan
Let's now rank the Presidents and First Ladies (always a fun activity, though truth be told only Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan appeared in The Butler, played by Minka Kelly and Jane Fonda respectively).

Dwight Eisenhower: 3/10

Robin Williams neither looks nor sounds like Ike.  His make-up makes him look like his predecessor, President Harry S. Truman.  In fact, either during or right after the Eisenhower Administration we get a quick shot of President Truman's official White House portrait, and I commented to my date (yes, I actually HAD a date, something more historic and/or shocking than anything in The Butler) that he looked too much like Truman and nothing like Eisenhower.   Williams appeared only twice in the film, and while I learned that Ike painted to relax (a bit like former President George W. Bush), he didn't seem one way or another in regards to civil rights.  It was almost as if he said, "Well, might as well send troops to enforce the Supreme Court's desegregation ruling in Little Rock".  Given his lifelong military experience (which gave him first-hand knowledge of desegregation) and his belief in the enforcement of the law the detachment The Butler gives Eisenhower when it came to enforcing the Court's ruling seems curious at best.

John F. Kennedy: 5/10

James Marsden is officially 5'10", but I suspect he's much shorter (maybe 5'7" or 5'8"), but even if he is 5'10" he is still a tad short to play the 6' Kennedy.  To his credit Marsden took a good stab at Kennedy's distinctive Massachusetts accent, and played him like most people imagine him to have been: youthful, handsome and idealistic (though curiously, no mention of any dalliances).  However, there is no effort to show that Kennedy took very cautious steps in civil rights in order to not alienate Southern Democrats whose support he needed in Congress.  It also does not give any credit to his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who was much more forceful in civil rights than the President was.  

Jacqueline Kennedy: 2/10

Kelly, like Williams, was barely a blip in the film, so she was again, nothing more than a pretty figure.  While Gloria was obsessed with knowing how many shoes Jackie had, we never saw anything of the First Lady as a person, apart from when a devastated widow returned to the White House in her pink outfit, having refused to change so that the world could see the horror of what had been done to her husband.

Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon Johnson: 7/10

Schreiber at least made a better effort to sound and look like the boorish Texan, raging and ranting with aplomb.  Johnson provided some comic relief in the overly-serious film when he's barking out orders from the toilet, and a clearly flustered Cecil has to hand the President a towel while the Commander-in-Chief is using the facilities.  However, we don't get that Johnson's commitment to civil rights was genuine (which I believe it was). 

Richard Nixon: 2/10

Cusack was wildly miscast.  He bears no resemblance to the 37th President whatsoever.  Worse, while The Butler takes pains to show him almost always in shadow or emerging from such, and Cusack does show how uncomfortable Nixon was with people, when we seen him crumble we feel nothing.

Gerald Ford & Jimmy Carter: 4/10 and 1/10 respectively (not in terms of actors, since we skipped them, but in terms of actual Presidencies.  Neither was particularly good, but Carter really is one of the worst Presidents we've had).

Ronald Reagan: 8/10

Out of all the President, Rickman's Reagan fared best.  His make-up was better than the rest, and while the voice is still that of Severus Snape at least Rickman took a stab at sounding like Ronnie.  One could argue that Reagan was the most fair and kind to Gaines.  After having remained quiet all these years, Gaines informs the Chief Usher that again, the black staff is paid less than the white staff, and when again he's rebuffed Gaines casually mentions to him that he's mentioned the pay difference to the President, who told him to tell the Chief Usher he'd like a word with him.

I wondered why, after working for so many Presidents, Gaines didn't bring this up with any of them or use any influence with his boss.

There is one disingenuous note to Rickman's portrayal.   As Gaines informs the President that he is leaving, Reagan tells him that he wonders whether he's 'on the wrong side of history' with this civil rights thing.  Say what you will of Ronnie, but it is highly unlikely that someone like Reagan would second-guess himself , or do as such so openly.  

Nancy Reagan: 7/10

In her few scenes, Jane Fonda portrayed the First Lady as someone who did care, somewhat, about the staff, though she also is a bit imperious with them.  In fairness, Nancy Reagan appeared imperious with everyone, so there was nothing unfair about her in that respect (if that makes any sense).  She actually appears pleasant in that she is thrilled to hear Cecil got the staff equal pay, and she did something no other First Lady did: invite him and his wife to an official state dinner.   I don't know why conservatives are up in arms over Fonda.  Yes, she went to pay a visit to the Viet Cong who were killing her fellow Americans, and yes, it was an amazingly stupid thing to do, but she's apologized for it and publicly regretted it and I think it's time to move on about it.  In terms of her performance, I thought it was pretty good.

On the whole The Butler is very respectable and proper.  My difficulty with the film is that it throws in so much history (family and Presidential) at us we don't get much about any of the characters save for Cecil Gaines.  IF the film had focused on the Gaines family overall, or selected one or two Administrations rather than compress seven of them, or even focused on the workings at the Executive Mansion with the family issues in the background, The Butler would have been a stronger, better film.  Still, it is well-acted and filled with good intentions (if not execution). 

To Those About To Dine, We Salute You...


1 comment:

  1. I did not know Rickman played Reagan, but I am glad to hear that he portrayed my favorite president well.
    Regarding the movie, I did not expect much from it and your review only confirmed my predicts. Great review, I enjoyed reading it.



Views are always welcome, but I would ask that no vulgarity be used. Any posts that contain foul language or are bigoted in any way will not be posted.
Thank you.