Lee Daniels might be exactly the wrong person to handle the fictionalized life story of possibly the most famous servant in the free world. What makes Lee Daniels’ The Butler actually work as well as it does is that he darn well knows he’s probably not the right man for the job. Coming off of such provocative material as Precious and The Paperboy, there was never going to be a world in this or any other universe that Daniels would turn in a straight faced inspirational drama about black people waiting on the most powerful white men in America for their entire careers. He’s definitely interested in the subversive humour of the situation and finding the humanity within the people populating the White House. It’s certainly an odd duck and it’s far from award worthy, but there’s something undeniably winsome and charming about Daniels almost open snickering that he was asked to make this movie in the first place. He also wisely makes the film not about power struggles and the lens of history, but one that’s really about fathers and sons.
Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) was seen as the best butler on staff at the White House from the Eisenhower administration through the Reagan term in the 1980s. He was a simple, hard working man raised in the cotton fields of Macon, Georgia without an education and forced to watch his own father get murdered in front of him as a child. While he toils away looking after the men in charge of keeping the free world free, his disapproving son Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes an ardent civil rights activist. Even more so than focusing on Cecil’s brushes with history (since the help were rarely privy to any juicy details), the film looks at the wedge that his job drives between his son and his recovering alcoholic wife (Oprah Winfrey).
In his past films, Daniels has proved that he isn’t afraid or shy when it comes to conveying a heavy handed message. He likes to lay subtext and meaning on as thick as humanly possible. While as a genre the historical biopic often has a tendency to lay things on pretty thick in terms of making its characters look like saints or something larger than life, every character in this film is merely a cog in a much larger machine. The presidents all have their worries and concerns, and naturally Cecil’s race and status are a big counterpoint to those issues, but those moments are far more fleeting than the vastly more interesting father and son dynamic happening between Whitaker and Oyelowo.
Whitaker portrays Cecil as a proud man who feels blessed to have been given such a great opportunity and job when he could have very easily ended up in prison or dead in a gutter. Oyelowo plays Louis as a young man angry that his father didn’t try harder to get more out of life. A lot of that could come as a result of Cecil’s chronic absenteeism thanks to his job and Louis being the first member of his family to even complete high school, but Daniels never turns it into a complete culture clash. While Louis’ mother might not be used to it, Cecil seems to understand the danger Louis puts himself in (going to Woolworth’s lunch counter sit ins, travelling with Martin Luther King Jr., joining the Black Panthers) almost through osmosis. They are the father and son who only pay attention to the details they feel are relevant to them. Their cultures never clash, but their minds certainly do.
Of course, the predominantly white audience needed to make something like The Butler a success will want to see how Cecil deals with his life at work, and that’s where Daniels’ subversive streak comes in, including an honest-to-God scene where MLK (played here in a bit part by Nelsan Ellis) explains to Louis how black house servants can be seen as subversive simply through being kind through all matters of racism inflicted upon them. And if the people want somewhat Forest Gump styled brushes with greatness, he’s going to play it all to the hilt.
The stunt casting of every major historical role in the film should speak to exactly the kind of tone. Robin Williams shows up as Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Liev Schreiber as LBJ (the most openly racist and seemingly unlikable of the bunch), John Cusack calls dibs on Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman, for some reason, plays Ronald Reagan. None of them really look, sound, or act like their real life counterparts. That’s not the point. The point is to give the audience familiar faces instead of the real history of the situation. History in this case for a larger audience simply means nostalgia, and that’s precisely what Daniels wants to give them. The performances are about emotional weariness above straight impersonation. They’re about an observed kind of unhappiness that never gets seen. At times it’s somewhat risible to think about, but as a piece of work, it oddly makes sense.
The back room kitchens of the White House are also populated and run at time like a boys club, thanks to Cecil’s two best friends James (Lenny Kravitz) and Carter (Cuba Gooding Jr.). These are the people who have been around longer than Cecil, so by the time he arrives, nothing impresses him. These characters are essentially the stand-ins for Daniels himself. James dispenses with the kind of logic and insight that keeps the unit grounded, and Cater (a role that Gooding attacks with gleeful aplomb, giving his best performance in probably a decade) makes with the foul mouthed wisecracks and casual observations that everyone around him is probably full of shit.
These elements are entertaining and the father and son stuff certainly gives the film its best moments, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s still a somewhat off putting discord between the snarky and the sentimental. It also doesn’t help that the film manages to be overstuffed even on top of everything previously mentioned. Oprah is fine as the loving wife, but a number of her scenes (most involving Terrence Howard as a neighbour looking to cheat on his wife with Cecil’s) feel tacked on to simply give her more screen time. A bit about Cecil’s younger son heading off to Vietnam feels strangely compressed and doesn’t have any real narrative drive except to provide a metaphorical guillotine over Cecil and Louis’ psyches. Even when Louis is out on his own and away from his family, his exploits don’t so much add any real context or character as much as they just add to the running time.
But through it all Daniels knows all the pitfalls of making an American historical biopic, and he’s not above self criticism. The film seems to be analyzing its own material as it goes along, making for an entertainingly breezy feel. It’s never afraid to possibly end up being embarrassing. I might be giving either a backhanded compliment or giving Daniels too much credit depending on how you look at things, but there’s something about that spirit that’s just as daring as his previous efforts; only this time those efforts seem more ambitious than misguided.