Friday, September 13, 2013

The Big Review: "Lee Daniels' The Butler"

Standing in the shadows of history.
Oh yeah, this will get a ton of Oscar nominations--though I won't care if that happens since it's quite good. Sorry for the tardiness of the review. It's been obnoxiously busy around these parts. 

This review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission.


Making a crowd-pleasing historical film isn’t that hard. Making a good one is damn near impossible because it’s so tempting (and easy) to cater to the lowest common denominator. Just show stock footage that reminds us of more challenging times, making sure to reveal the sentimental spot in that historical briar patch. This is usually done by having a character comment about “how those days were so, so tough.” And highlight the fashion and music of the good old days, because nostalgia is the cement that holds the rickety structure together.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler, based on a 2008 Washington Post profile, never chokes us with its historical swoop—interactions with presidents, various social movements, and oh so many hairdos. Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong are more concerned with telling a good story about a father and son divided—and later reunited—by history.

Growing up on a Georgia cotton farm in the 1920s, Cecil Gaines saw his father shot to death by a white man. Young Cecil’s reward was that he was taught to be a “house nigger” or butler, a skill he took to a fancy hotel in Washington, D.C. and ultimately to the White House, where, according to the movie, he served presidents Eisenhower through Reagan.  

Along the way, Cecil achieved a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, complete with a wife (Oprah Winfrey) and kids, which was miles away from the cotton fields. In 1957, this is a dream life for most, especially African-Americans. Times are changing. Older son Louis (David Oyelowo) looks at the world differently. As a butler, Cecil is taught that “the room should feel empty when you’re in it.” Louis is tired of living life as an invisible man, forced to stay on one side of the line. He leaves for college in Tennessee fully intending to fight the power. 

Years pass. Cecil (played in his adult years by Forest Whitaker) continues to serve in the White House while Louis looks to forge a new identity, taking up the cause of the Freedom Riders, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Father and son grow further apart, even though each is making progress. Cecil is there for the Voting Rights Act; Louis holds vigil at Woolworth’s lunch counter and faces the unforgiving blast of fire hoses.

Louis thinks he knows everything, dismissing his father’s job—one that gives a black man dignity in a world where it’s hard to come by—as the career of an Uncle Tom. The young man expresses his views from a distance and without context, not realizing that Cecil’s hard work has allowed him the ability to protest. And Cecil, committed to a lifestyle of being neither seen nor heard, doesn’t realize that the acts of kids like Louis are why presidents are passing legislation to make things equal.

There is no Forrest Gump-like gimmickry. Remove the high-profile presidential cameos from Lee Daniels’ The Butler and you still have a searing family drama. I never thought I’d say this about Daniels, a director whose best-known work is either exploitative (The Paperboy) or an urban poor burlesque (Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire) but he’s finally learned to hold back. Instead of trafficking in schlock, he builds his scenes, taking the time to draw out characters in living rooms and front porches. The conversations feel real, not like historical footnotes. We always return to two men making their way in an unforgiving world: one by working twice as hard for half the pay, and the other by any means necessary.

The performances are lived-in, realistic, and keep you involved. Whitaker plays the lead role as a kind man navigating constant hurt, not as an observer to change. Terrence Howard is all oily charm as Cecil’s tomcatting neighbor, and it’s so nice to see Cuba Gooding Jr. find his swagger. Winfrey sheds her entitled air to play a woman whose increasing distance from her husband and her son cause her to drift into booze and questionable decisions. Her unraveling is treated as part of a family’s evolving history. Sometimes things are good, sometimes things turn bad. If we stick together, it’ll all be just fine.  

I think that’s why people have already flocked to see Lee Daniels’ The Butler. We need a reminder that we’re living our lives the right way, that what happened in the past led us to better times. People want their souls fed, and Daniels and Strong have offered a heaping plate of comfort food, a lovely, lyrical film that focuses on people, not pomp. 

Note (10/1/13)--It's come to my attention that Cecil Gaines is not the actual name of the butler profiled in The Washington Post story. It's Eugene Allen. My apologies for any confusion.

1 comment:

Inflow Shoretel Reseller said...

Expertly produced! I loved the intricate juxtaposition of the civil rights activities against the status quo of the butler's "service" and how the two eventually were joined together to effect the changes in the American race relations. Wonderful movie!