Silver Screen: The Butler ****
You can’t fault Lee Daniels’s The Butler for lack of ambition. During the course of a little more than two hours, the movie attempts to encapsulate the entire lifespan of an octogenarian, the totality of the civil-rights movement, and five presidential administrations. If that seems like a little too much to chew on in one sitting, well, it is. But despite a divided focus and flashes of overwhelming sentimentality, The Butler manages to overcome its excesses to be affecting and nuanced in between its broad historical strokes.
We first meet the butler of the title, Cecil Gaines, as a child, which is part of the problem. Rather than using some combination of exposition and flashback, Daniels begins pretty literally at the beginning, with Cecil’s tragic childhood. Two different actors portray Cecil at a young age as his mother is raped, his father is murdered, and the boy is trained as a household servant. Young Cecil flees the farmhouse and in his destitution nearly falls into a life of crime before an older man (the great Clarence Williams III) takes him in and gives him formal training as a butler. These early scenes are redolent with pathos, but the events move so quickly and the faces change so rapidly, there’s a disconnect between the melodrama of the story and what should be its emotional impact.
The film finds its footing when Forest Whitaker takes over the role of Gaines. His gravitas grounds the movie whenever it threatens to drift away, and despite the movie’s surfeit of talented performers and historical characters, he’s never upstaged for a single second. Whitaker’s presence settles the movie into a more comfortable rhythm as Cecil lands a coveted job as a personal servant to the President of the United States. He’s fiercely proud of his work at the White House, although the novelty is eventually lost on his neglected wife (Oprah Winfrey) and his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo).
Cecil is mostly on the sidelines during the civil-rights battle, working throughout the 1960s and 1970s inside the bubble of the White House with his fellow domestic staffers (Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr., both excellent in strong supporting roles). Cecil’s seeming obliviousness to the struggle rankles his increasingly militant son, who joins the Freedom Riders and eventually the Black Panthers as he fights on the front lines for social justice. Though it takes awhile to establish, this conflict is the core of The Butler, and the movie is at its sharpest when directly dealing with it.
During its weaker moments The Butler plays like a historical highlight reel. If Martin Luther King Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) makes an appearance in your story that can be described as brief and unremarkable, you’re moving too fast. There’s an abundance of fascinating material here, but Daniels’s unwillingness to sacrifice any of it drains some of the story’s power and distracts from its central storyline.
It’s all but impossible not to rank The Butler’s depictions of the presidents--the film practically begs for it with its stunt casting. So why resist? Here it goes:
James Marsden comes out on top with his fairly impressive John F. Kennedy impersonation. He has the right look, but it’s not overemphasized, as is the case with Minka Kelly as Jackie. It doesn’t hurt that the script treats the Kennedys as characters, whereas the rest of the presidents are rendered in varying degrees of caricature. Lyndon B. Johnson, played by Liev Schreiber, is basically a living conglomeration of LBJ trivia. He shouts and curses incessantly, barks orders from atop the toilet, and lacks grace even by the standards of a Texan. But Schreiber does an uncanny riff on him that manages to breathe a little life into what’s otherwise a cardboard cutout of a world leader. The same problem plagues Alan Rickman’s Ronald Reagan, but aside from a more-than-expected physical resemblance Rickman doesn’t bring as much credibility in his few scenes. Robin Williams barely even registers in his fleeting few seconds of screentime as Dwight Eisenhower, but that’s better at least than John Cusack’s embarrassing Richard Nixon, which would be underbaked even for a MAD TV sketch. Ford and Carter get skipped over altogether in a musical montage, but it’s fun to mentally cast the roles anyway. My vote goes to J.K Simmons as Ford and Bob Odenkirk as Carter.
Cecil may be expected to keep his political opinions to himself, but the movie makes little effort to hide its political slant. Screenwriter Danny Strong has more than earned his lefty street cred in a pair of HBO original movies, including Recount, which criticized the process of the 2000 election that put George W. Bush in office, and the adaptation of John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s Game Change, an unflattering look at Sarah Palin’s influence on the McCain campaign in 2008. Strong tows the liberal line in his interpretation of the presidents, lionizing Kennedy while depicting Nixon as a cartoon crook only slightly more complex than Snidely Whiplash.
The movie’s take on Reagan has the most complexity. Despite the stick-it-to-you casting of Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Mr. and Mrs. Gipper are portrayed as personable, considerate people. Yet Ronnie’s sweetly paternal attitude is undercut by his regressive attitude toward South African Apartheid. The movie smartly highlights this disjunction between his affable demeanor and his monstrous policies, some of which are enumerated by Louis in a brief but damning speech.
It’s a shame the screenplay doesn’t allow for the same complex view of Nixon, who is in many ways Reagan’s inverse, a personally despicable individual whose policies were in many cases more progressive than many might think. Not that that would matter for right wingers and Tea Party types, who will surely be chucking their star-spangled tophats and flag pins at the screen by the time the film launches into its superfluous Yes We Can epilogue, where Barack Obama is treated with the same giddy approval as a Tiger Beat cover model.
It’s not terribly subtle, but subtlety isn’t one of Daniels’s defining traits. This extends far beyond The Butler’s depictions of the presidents. Daniels never seems to trust his audience to understand his message, no matter how obvious or clearly expressed. There are a dozen examples in the movie, but none so indicative as the closing title card, which states that the movie is dedicated to the men and women who fought for the civil-rights movement-- as if after more than two hours of a movie that sometimes powerfully depicts their struggles viewers might not realize that. Similarly, Cecil’s relentless voiceover constantly restates the meaning of every scene and twist, diminishing the power of some of the more artfully constructed sequences.
But despite its frequent heavy-handedness, The Butler smartly articulates some difficult, contradictory truths about the civil-rights battle. Daniels makes a strong case that different, sometimes seemingly opposing approaches were necessary for progress. Cecil’s revolution is quieter and more polite, while Louis’s is a very public, active struggle. The film finds the nuances of each man’s position; Cecil is often disgusted and sometimes diminished by the attitudes and ideas he sees at work every day, while an increasingly savvy Louis sees the danger in a totally radicalized movement. It’s truly impressive that Daniels and Strong are able to elaborate on the nobility of a more patient, passive kind of resistance without ever devaluing the brave and utterly necessary actions of the younger, more zealous activists. It’s much easier to craft a dramatic narrative out of sit-ins, protests, and riots than to make a compelling story out of a man’s humble servitude. The Butler rises to the challenge, not just finding a harmony between the two very different forms of resistance but establishing their mutual interdependence.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.