(by Dustin Putman
An egregiously melodramatic embellishment of a true story that deserved a more honest treatment, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" no doubt means well—its decades-spanning look at the Civil Rights Movement practically screams at the viewer, "This is good for you!"—but the picture is curiously undignified in the often cheap liberties it takes. Based on the article "A Butler Well Served by This Election" by Wil Haygood, the film proposes to tell the tale of Eugene Allen, a noble black man who served as a White House butler—and later head maître 'd—over a staggering eight Presidential administrations. For reasons that have everything to do with manipulating an audience, screenwriter Danny Strong has done a distinct disservice to Eugene Allen by renaming him Cecil Gaines and more or less fictionalizing his past, his family, and most of his experiences. Sure, when making a biopic it is expected that a detail here and there might be changed for dramatic purposes, but what Strong and director Lee Daniels (2012's "The Paperboy") have done goes beyond that, sending out the message that Allen's actual life was not interesting or worthy enough to be depicted on the big screen. Article continues below
As a child working in the cotton fields of Macon, Georgia, 1926, an 8-year-old Cecil Gaines (Michael Rainey Jr.) was witness to the brutal death of his father (David Banner), shot point-blank in the head for speaking up when wife Hattie Pearl (Mariah Carey) was raped by a despicable white farmer's son (Alex Pettyfer). Brought into the house by matriarch Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave), Cecil is trained as a servant—work experience that serves him well as an adult (now played by Forest Whitaker) when he makes his way to Washington, DC, and gets a job as a waiter at the Excelsior Hotel. From there, he gets his big break in 1957, welcomed into the White House as a butler during the Eisenhower Administration. Told that "there is no room for politics in the White House," Cecil knows that he is expected to silently do his job, never reacting to conversations he hears and certainly never offering up his opinion to the politicians he serves. As a spectator of political and social turmoil and eventual change from the late-'50s until his retirement in 1986, perhaps Cecil's greatest professional achievement comes during the Reagan years when he plays a central role in the black staff finally given equal pay and opportunity for advancement.
There is a tougher, more courageous version of "Lee Daniels' The Butler" that could have been made had the film been produced outside the studio system, or, perhaps, followed the lead of 2011's vastly more affecting "The Help." Watching Lee Daniels back-pedal with this kind of safe, vanilla, threadbare filmmaking after having stunned with his directorial debut, 2009's "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," is admittedly discouraging. Beyond devising a cockamamie childhood tragedy for Cecil to overcome, Daniels has also seen fit to rewrite Eugene Allen's very family. In reality, he had one son, Charles, who served in Vietnam and continued to have a close-knit relationship with his father until Eugene's death in 2010. In the spectacular movie world, Cecil has two sons, the younger, Charlie (Elijah Kelley), dying in Vietnam, and the elder, Louis (David Oyelowo), rebelling against his dad to become a Freedom Rider who, later, flirts with joining the Black Panthers. From Louis participating in the famous Woolworth's sit-in, to narrowly surviving a brush-up with the Ku Klux Klan during the protests in Birmingham, to being in Memphis, Tennessee at the time Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, no contrived stone is left unturned. If the movie were solely about him, it might be called "Louis Gump." Adding to the movie's far-fetched conveniences, Cecil and wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) are informed of soldier Charlie's death on Cecil's birthday, just as they're about to go party hard at the disco club.
Forest Whitaker (2013's "The Last Stand") gives Cecil a quiet honor and decorum, saving his bursts of anger for increasingly estranged son Louis whenever he comes to visit and bad-mouths Sidney Poitier at the dinner table (yes, you read that correctly). Whitaker is a steadfast constant among the ensemble, but overshadowed by the tsunami of recognizable name actors who shuffle in and out for distracting cameo appearances. Far too many of them negatively call attention to themselves and take one's attention away from the story. Robin Williams (2013's "The Big Wedding") plays President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom Cecil says is the first white man he'd encountered to "stick his neck out for black folks." John Cusack (2012's "The Raven") portrays Richard Nixon without looking at all like him, confiding in Cecil during the Watergate Scandal that he'll "bounce back" in no time. Alan Rickman (2011's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2") does a fair enough job as President Ronald Reagan, while Jane Fonda (2012's "Peace, Love & Misunderstanding") pops up as First Lady Nancy, who kindly invites Cecil and Gloria to their first dinner at the White House. As President Lyndon B. Johnson, Liev Schreiber (2013's "Movie 43") is given nothing to do but direct orders as he sits constipated on the toilet. Of the political bigwigs, it is James Marsden (2011's "Straw Dogs") who most closely captures the essence of his real-life counterpart, President John F. Kennedy. The revolving door of actors come and go quickly, each hastily abbreviated section (divided by administrations) giving the narrative an episodic, Cliffs' Notes feel.
With Cecil working such long hours, wife Gloria gets lonely, then bitter, turning to booze and briefly indulging in an affair with family friend Howard (Terrence Howard), the latter a subplot that goes absolutely nowhere before disappearing altogether. It's all highly predictable and even hackneyed, but Oprah Winfrey (1998's "Beloved"), in the film's fullest, most powerful performance, saves this material from collapsing. As huge a star as Winfrey is, it is a testament to her vast abilities as an actor that she vanishes into her role as completely as she does. Even when forced to play her last scene bent over the kitchen table with breathing tubes in her nose, Winfrey somehow finds the truth hidden behind a layer of Hollywood schmaltz. Indeed, the relationship between Cecil and Gloria arguably works better than any of the White House scenes since both performers are given the time to explore and develop a rich, imperfect but loving romantic bond.
The clichés come fast and furious in "Lee Daniels' The Butler," as numerous as the amount of times the viewer is reminded this is Serious Oscar Fare™. In rewriting the history of a man who lived to triumphantly see a person of color become the elected Head of State, director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong have traded authenticity for prefabricated dramatic posturing and surface-level emotions. The film is so busy trying to make a big impact that it only succeeds when the rare cast member transcends the calculated restraints placed upon them. Oh, sure, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" is valiant in its journey through semi-recent American history, but just because a motion picture is sympathetic to a cause doesn't necessarily make it worthwhile—not when there are far better films out there about the same subject matter. If Eugene Allen was still alive, would he be able to recognize himself amidst all the artifice?