* (1 star)
d – Lee Daniels
w – Danny Strong (Based on the Article “A Butler Well Served by This Election” by Wil Haygood)
ph – Andrew Dunn
pd – Tim Galvin
m – Rodrigo Leao
ed – Joe Klotz
cos – Ruth E. Carter
p – Lee Daniels, Cassian Elwes, Buddy Patrick, Pamela Oas Williams, Laura Ziskin
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Elijah Kelley, Cuba Gooding Jr, Lenny Kravitz, Colman Domingo, Terrence Howard, Adriane Lenox, Yaya DaCosta, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Clarence Williams III, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Mariah Carey, David Banner
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is loosely inspired by the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American who witnessed notable events of the 20th century during his 34-year tenure serving as a White House butler. It is fitting that the copyright squabble between Warner Bros. and The Weinstein Company has led to the director having his name somewhat superciliously attached to the title because Mr Daniels takes many liberties with the real-life story itself. This includes changes to the names of most involved and the concoction of other characters altogether.
That, however, is not the problem, but unfortunately, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a film with many. Unfortunate really is the best word here because Mr Daniels’ film was clearly made with copacetic intentions, and there is so much that the film almost gets right. But when one stands back and gapes at it as a quantitative entity, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a pretty confused movie.
What this boils down to is that Mr Daniels has not made one feature film, but several miniature ones. Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines (our Eugene Allen) who escapes his tragic Southern life to begin afresh in Washington DC. One day he receives rapturous news for both him and his wife Gloria, played by Oprah Winfrey (her first time playing a character since 1998’s Beloved). Cecil’s excellent skills as a butler and his concentration to the requirements of some very important people earn him a job at the presidential palace itself. This comes as unwelcome news to their burgeoning-activist son Louis, played by David Oyelowo. It’s there that he devotes numerous decades, witnessing what seems to be almost every single important civil rights conversation that went on in that place.
Movie A is an episodic pageant through each presidential administration with several famous names playing several famous names in heavy makeup. Cecil and the other butlers work day-in and day-out as they grow wiser with each succeeding president. Movie B is a domestic family drama through the fashions of the times with Cecil and Gloria dealing with both their rocky marriage and their citizenry duties as Americans. Movie C centres on Louis, who spends his whole life striving for liberty and justice for his brothers and sisters and who finds himself at almost every significant event that had anything to do with the civil rights movement, Forrest Gump-style. The character was invented specially for the film. Movie D is the best of them - a father-son fable, focusing on Cecil’s disapproval with Louis. The best scene in the picture is a dinner with the family where Louis announces his association to The Black Panther Party.
This all becomes quite crowded and unsurprisingly Cecil gets lost in the mix, despite the openness that Mr Whitaker brings to the part. Both Ms Winfrey and Mr Oyelowo are charismatic but almost everything they do is a form of indication and once we reach the film’s end we are left only with their skeletons. The gallery of presidents are all pretty sketchy, with Mr Marsden surviving the best.
The effect of this kind of vast manoeuvring is that the episodes become like notes on a xylophone and we end up simply watching Mr Daniels hit the notes. We know the actions of each succeeding scene two scenes prior. This is unexpected coming from a director like Mr Daniels (working with a script by Danny Strong), whose last two films, Precious (2009) and The Paperboy (2012), were anything but rudimentary. In fact, they were slap-happy to a fault.
What’s most admirable about the picture is that it is an American studio-produced film about African-American oppression told entirely from their point-of-view. There is no white-knight who comes along, helps the characters and learns, by the film’s end, a great lesson in humane morality. Individual scenes are so well constructed and such candid moments are uncovered, but the film as a whole is more credible than commendable.