I think it’s safe to say that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is no Django Unchained when it comes to race relations. No, this chronicle of the life of a black butler who served at the White House over eight administrations is a bit too well intentioned for that. At the same time, it’s one of those well intentioned movies that probably would have benefited from being a little less well intentioned.
…The Butler is what is usually called middle brow—in other words, it’s a film that deals with serious and challenging subject matter, but does it in a way that will never seriously challenge anyone (while making them think it does). It’s a movie that takes no real chances, has no real edge, does nothing new, because in the end, the choices the producers, the director (Lee Daniels, hence the title) and writer Danny Strong make, feel as if they were made with a firm eye on the box office. This doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t entertaining. It’s definitely that (though somewhere towards the end, one does start to feel its length). But in the end, it’s little more than that.
For those of you who have been on a walking tour of Siberia for the last few months, Lee Daniels’ The Butler revolves around Cecil Gaines, a black man who rose from cotton picker’s son to being a domestic at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The story is basically ironic. It’s about a man who is fixed squarely in the midst of history (he can’t seem to turn around without it smacking him in the face), yet at the same time, takes absolutely no part in it. He watches it go by, like a parade, but never actually marches with it.
The strongest scenes in the film are the scenes of everyday life of Gaines’ family and friends, the times they gather to gossip, play cards, drink. There is an incredible naturalness to these scenes, an improvisational verisimilitude that is often riveting. At times it feels as if one could watch these scenes of domesticity flow on forever. All of which leads to a second bit of irony: the less political the movie is, the more alive and vibrant it is. Whenever the focus is on the issues, the more on the nose and obvious it becomes until it takes on the weighty tone of one of those message pictures from the old days of MGM and Twentieth Century Fox.
By using what is called poetic license, screenwriter Strong is able to dramatize every single important civil rights issue and event from the 1950’s on. He does this by giving Gaines a “the times, they are a changing” son (in real life, the character Gaines is based on had no such troubled relationship with his offspring). Whatever event Gaines doesn’t witness himself, his son can experience them by going on the road with the freedom riders, being a personal friend of Martin Luther King or joining The Black Panthers. If this method of story telling comes across as convenient, well, it is. And while the scenes at Gaines’ home feel fresh and felt first hand, the rest of the movie comes across more like a Cliff Notes (remember those) version of race relations in America.
This is seconded by the casting of such stars as Robin Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, James Marsden and John Cusack in the white roles. Much has been made of this stunt casting. But it should also be noted that this is stunt casting in which none of the cast is given any stunts to do. Almost no one really resembles, and at times barely sounds like, their real life counterparts (the make up feels especially uninspired). Only Jane Fonda really escapes unscathed in her role as Nancy Regan (a further irony: the former anti-war activist playing the people, here and in The Newsroom, that she use to rail against when she was younger).
But if the movie is saved, it is saved by the dynamic performances of the rest of the cast. Forest Whitaker is perfectly fine as Gaines, but it’s Terence Howard, Adriane Lenox, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz who shine as Gaines’ fellow workers and neighbors.
However, towering over everyone is Ms. Oprah Winfrey who takes no prisoners with her performance as Gaines’s wife. Before her appearance, the movie is little more than sincere, a bit stiff and familiar. But from her first appearance, slightly slattern, obviously tipsy, a cigarette dangling precariously from her mouth, she brings an energy and intensity to the screen that was missing earlier. It’s a deeply moving performance.
Two more issues to be noted. First, in the social media and criticism world that surrounds this movie, there is a suggestion that this is an original and ground breaking story, something that’s never been told before. But are people really this young? In many ways, one could make the argument that this is little more than a sequel to a popular TV mini-series from 1979 called Backstairs at the White House which dramatized the lives of people like Gaines from the time of Taft to Eisenhower (with Andrew Duggan in the Robin Williams role).
Second, I remember when there was a lot of criticism of the movie The Help, a movie about southern domestics, criticism that often came out before the movie was even released. I’m not sure why there was so much anger toward that film, but not toward this one. Gaines is far more passive than any of the characters in The Help, all of whom were far more willing to risk their lives and positions than Gaines would ever think to do (the most he does is demand equal pay for blacks as for whites, but he demands it at such a late date and so near his retirement, it seems a hollow victory and has none of the emotional resonance that the decisions made by the characters in The Help did). And if you’re one of the ones who thought the maids in the earlier film were stereotypes, then logically you should consider Gaines to be something out of a 1930’s movie. For those of you who trumpeted Lee Daniel’s The Butler, but criticized The Help, you not only should have your head examined, you need to apologize to Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.