Lee Daniels, even in his awards-baiting prestige mode, is never one for subtly of emotion or the difference between gratuitous and melodramatic and finely assembled montage. The Butler will make you cry and feel an emotion, but only because it has worked so damn hard to beat it out of you when if it had taken a “Just the fact ma’am” approach we would have ended up with something all the better.
The fact is, there are several different films straining to burst forth from this one. And maybe Daniels and his creative staff would have been better served ushering in the project as a mini-series on HBO or a likeminded network that would have remained fairly hands-off. We begin our story in 1920s Georgia, which sees our main character as a young child witnessing his mother’s (off-screen) rape and the murder of his father. In typical style of the rest of the film motivations and shifting political ideology are spoken aloud instead of shown to us, even the things that seem incredibly obvious like a discussion with a teenaged Cecil Gaines, our future butler, and the master servant of a pastry shop who tells him that black people must wear two faces at all times, one for the white world at large and one for their private world.
None of this would have been a major problem if there weren’t a few other things that went wrong with the production. Chiefly, many of the major supporting roles are written as ciphers or walking symbols and not characters in their own right, and the more often than not distracting parade of star stunt-casting. Names like Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, John Cusack, Minka Kelly, Mariah Carey, Live Schreiber, Robin Williams, Alan Rickman and James Marsden certainly look like a tony cast, but they’re frequently stranded with bad makeup jobs and nothing to do. Mariah Carey’s entirely mute performance is particularly distracting at the beginning; her role could have just gone to an extra and nothing would have changed about the sequence except for the distracting nature of Mariah Carey dressed as a field worker. Marsden is a great choice for JFK, and in his limited time makes you think what wonders he could do with the role in a larger capacity, the same thing can’t be said for the rest of the presidents. Williams is decent but doesn’t register much, Cusack spends a lot of time staring off into the distance and doesn’t come close to emulating Nixon, and Schreiber dips into gonzo humor in his sequences which are uncomfortable in the sense that we can’t tell if this is supposed to be played straight or taken as some kind of satire.
But let’s get back to the characters as symbols, a few supporting characters walk away as fully realized characters. Cuba Gooding Jr. makes a welcome return to serious acting and does a commendable job as the fast-talking wiseass of the White House staff, that his character manages to add some depth and personality outside of this one-note role is a good thing. The same thing can’t be said about David Oyelowo as Louis Gaines, Cecil’s oldest son. Oyelowo is a gifted actor and I look forward to seeing more of his work, so it’s not a problem of performance here, purely one of writing a character who just so happens to be involved with every major twist and turn in political ideals and social revolutions of the pre, mid and post-Civil Rights era. First he’s a student protestor, and this segment gives the film its single best moment, a purely transcendent piece of filmmaking that makes the rest of the film feel weaker in comparison. While he is sitting in on a lunch counter, his father is prepping a luxurious dinner at the White House. It’s a quiet summation of the two parallel journeys in the story, Cecil’s quiet revolution by showing that black people are just as hard-working and committed to doing their jobs well as the rest of the society, and Louis’ longing to change the system so that he may dream bigger and achieve higher in society. But then Oyelowo must also take part in the fire-bombing of a bus, MLK’s assassination, the Black Panther party and seemingly every other major moment of the era. Its lazy writing that mistakes plugging a character into a historical situation for another to react towards for development. It would have been much better if The Butler had focused in on one particular presidency instead of delivery a broad history lesson or force-feeding these events to us.
But Daniels is still smart enough to know that the main success of his story was the central picture of a loving couple, and if he didn’t cast those two parts correctly nothing in The Butler would have worked. Forest Whitaker is dynamic and touching in a very quiet, understated, reflective and moving as Cecil Gaines. If there’s any justice, he’ll get a second Oscar nomination out of this. The same is true for Oprah Winfrey as his wife Gloria, who gets the flashier role. It’s hard to imagine Oprah (read: OPRAH!!) as a chain-smoking, alcoholic, adulterous housewife who is just taking out her loneliness and aggression in her life out in these ways, but she nails it. Of course, everyone talks about her glorious back-hand to her son during a highly combative dinner scene, but she’s most alive for me as an actress when she’s venomously questioning Cecil about Jackie Kennedy’s wardrobe and his career late at night. It’s easy to forget what a gifted character actress she is beneath the outsized media persona.
So as we walk away from The Butler I can’t help but bring up The Help, a film which takes place over the same amount of time and tackles much of the same subject matter. But unlike that film, this one doesn’t offer up balm for our wounds. It prefers to have a good hard look at the emotional and psychic scars which this country is still trying to let heal and move past picking at. It’s a mixed bag, but I’ll take the film about black history created by largely black talent over the white people solve racism myth, thank you very much.