Lee Daniels' The Butler Offers Lousy Service

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)
Directed by Lee Butler
Follow Through Productions, 132 minutes, PG-13
* *

It’s seldom a good sign when a director slaps his name in front of a well-worn title. Consider that a metaphor for this half-realized film that could have used a strict editor in the green room and a team of historians on the set.

The Butler is the story of Cecil Gaines, whose improbable tale is based on the biography of Eugene Allen, whose story is much more interesting than the fictionalized account we see on the screen. The film follows Gaines from a Georgia boyhood on a cotton plantation in the 1920s, where he witnesses a white overseer murder his father for daring to protest his wife’s rape. In what passes for pity, the family matriarch, Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave), takes Cecil into the house and teaches him to become a servant.

Cecil is very good at his job–so good that by the 1950s he’s part of the White House servants’ staff. The Butler chronicles Gaines’ time in the White House from the Eisenhower administration through that of Ronald Reagan. The film also follows Gaines into retirement. Much of the script appears to have been cribbed from another Gaines– novelist Ernest Gaines and his magnificent Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. In the latter work, Jane Pittman, a former slave, lives to see the salad days of the civil rights movement. The Butler takes us from sharecropping, Jim Crow, and the KKK to Rosa Parks, MLK, and the election of Barack Obama. Right away we have a problem. Instead telling part of the drama in poignant detail, Daniels seeks to tell it all through snapshots and vignettes that have the weight of butterfly wings and the depth of a sheet of paper.

Forest Whitaker is very good as the adult Cecil Gaines, but he really can’t do more than skate across Daniels’ thin surfaces. The biographical timeframe alone is daunting, but Daniels also wants to play out the entire civil rights drama, take us inside Cecil’s family life, make a point about the dignity of black servants, and take detours involving the Vietnam War, the Black Panthers, black politics in the 1980s, and South Africa. Each of these is a valid topic, but each also deserves more than a wink, a nod, and a grainy film clip or two. The lesson that black men in service quietly undermine racism through their very competence–allegedly delivered to Cecil’s eldest son by none other than Dr. King himself–is certainly an important one. It has been made, for instance, by numerous academics studying the dynamics of the Pullman Brotherhood. The Butler might have been a better film had moral witness been its sole center. Daniels doesn’t trust his audience enough to assume they have any knowledge of the civil rights movement; hence he tries to make sure he mentions everything. He may be right about American historical amnesia, but his cram-it-in filmmaking can’t even be called painting with broad strokes–it’s more like using a spray gun.
Still, Daniels’s truncated civil rights overview seems positively obese compared to the skeletal coverage given to presidential politics. I wish he would have asked Saturday Night Live to supply the presidents as Daniels’ take on presidents is every bit the caricature for which SNL is noted, but without capturing the essence of any of them. Robin Williams as Eisenhower? James Marsden as a rail-thin JFK? Ouch! Okay, so Liev Schreiber does a credible LBJ cameo and Alan Rickman is pretty good as Reagan, but nothing–and I mean nothing–redeems John Cusak’s embarrassing Nixon. He sports such a horrendous prosthetic nose that it looks as if he just rushed over from a production of Pinocchio. (One inspired casting choice: Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan!)

You’ve probably heard buzz that Oprah Winfrey will get a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her boozy, bossy, bored role as Gloria Gaines. She probably will because, well, she’s Oprah, but she doesn’t deserve one. David Oyelowo would be a better choice for his supporting role as eldest son Louis Gaines, but really, there’s just nothing here that warrants thinking of this film as more than an afterschool special for the Lifetime channel. Sloppy filmmaking aside, any point Daniels might have made about African-American struggle is lost in an unforgivably schmaltzy ending involving Barack Obama’s election. It’s as if all of the horrors of the past dissipated when Obama assumed the White House. We know better, don’t we? And I sure as hell recognize American triumphalism when I see it–that teleological pipe dream that deceptively casts the past as an unfortunate prelude to a redeemed present. It’s bad enough when we see this from Stephen Spielberg or Ron Howard; it’s doubly sad when it comes from a black director. --Rob Weir

No comments: