I was not looking forward to seeing this film. I have a well-established allergy to films designed to win Oscars, and this one had all the Weinstein fingerprints that seemed to indicate the worst kind of Hollywood awards baiting. The trailers were especially egregious in this manner, with swelling strings and “based on a true story” claims and pointed stunt casting. Additionally, despite Daniels’ recent awards success of Precious: Based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, he isn’t exactly considered to be a prestige director, and has had a tendency to be a bit on the heavy handed side of the spectrum, as was proven by The Paperboy (proving that he can, in fact, make films that have normal names with normal lengths). There were positives to be seen, mostly involving Forest Whitaker, one of the great actors of the aging generation. From a perception perspective, the negatives looked to outweigh the positives.
In practice, though, it’s honestly not all that bad. It’s not all that good either, mind you, but I found myself surprised by how effective large portions of Lee Daniels’ The Butler turned out to be. The plot follows Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), a man born on a cotton farm before entering the service industry as a young adult and eventually becoming a butler at the White House. Cecil and his relationship with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) represents the dominant storyline, as well as providing for the aforementioned stunt casting, as each President from Eisenhower through Reagan is played in an outsized manner by some famous personalities. For the most part, the casting choices are a distractions, but don’t necessarily get in the way of the film except in one specific case (more on that later).
There is a secondary storyline (if you can call it secondary) involving Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo) and what essentially represents the sum total of civil rights history in America from the 50’s through the present day. Louis becomes politically active shortly after Cecil begins working at the White House, and manages to insert himself into nearly every major black civil rights movement in the modern history of the US, save for sitting next to Rosa Parks on the bus. He rides the freedom bus, participates in sit-ins and protests at local businesses and joins the Black Panthers. All of these moments radicalize him in the eyes of Cecil, and Cecil’s subservience in the service industry marginalizes him in the eyes of Louis. The conceit is a strong one in theory, creating a parallel between Louis’ actions and Cecil’s seeing how they reflect on the President in power.
When you consider all of this together, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is an ambitious film. Indeed, most of its failings are directly caused by its ambition. The Louis character is the biggest example of this; while Oyelowo is a strong presence on screen, he is essentially a combination of a living plot contrivance and a walking, talking civil rights textbook. Most of the moments that stand out as particularly cringey are likely to involve Louis doing something blatantly civil rights based, like having a very plotty conversation with Martin Luther King Jr, or magically showing up at Cecil’s house in full Black Panther garb. The simple act of being a revolutionary isn’t enough to make Louis feel like an actual human character with motivations and practical emotions.
Additionally, none of the gimmicky Presidents are actually good. Some are passable (James Marsden’s JFK) and some are pretty unfortunate (Robin Williams as Eisenhower/Liev Schreiber as LBJ), but one specific choice is actively disastrous. I will concede that Alan Rickman done up in all of his hair and makeup looks the part, but that’s about as far as it gets. His accent work is confused and his mannerisms feel all wrong. The suspension of disbelief is bent by some of the other characters, but with Reagan it breaks in half.
The strong performances of Whitaker, Winfrey and Oyelowo keep the film afloat through all of its indulgences and contrivances. In truth, there is just too much stuffed into Lee Daniels’ The Butler for it to ever really work on its own merits. I have a feeling that a Forest Whitaker led television show or miniseries about this character and his family (one that would have given more time and energy into developing the Louis character organically) could have been a much more effective portrait of civil rights in our era.