LEE DANIEL’S THE BUTLER (referred to in this review as THE BUTLER), based on a Washington Post article on the real-life Butler – Eugene Allen, is probably coming at a perfect time with the likely nadir of the Obama Administration. THE BUTLER is a film not made by a committee, but with nearly forty Producers credited… is one that seems to be trying to please too many people while it skirts Presidential and American history. Forest Whitaker, who does an excellent job as the lead actor playing Cecil Gaines (Cecil) and serves himself as a Producer, is always an intriguing and engaging actor. Depending on audiences’ reactions to this film (and if it has legs at the box office), he very well may hear his name announced as an Oscar nominee this winter. As for the rest of Director Lee Daniels’ film, his heavy hand likely took away any chances at an awards season to remember. Following up his Oscar-nominated film PRECIOUS with a much bigger project, with an A-list cast, and a budget many filmmakers would die for… should have motivated Mr. Daniels to leave his politics at home. Sadly, he didn’t and his film is the poorer for it.
THE BUTLER opens with two Black Men hanging from a lamppost with an American flag clearly in the background and within minutes, Cecil’s Mother (“Hattie Pearl,” played by an unrecognizable Mariah Carey) is raped and her husband (Cecil’s father) murdered by the white redneck son of a landowner in the Deep South. These opening minutes ably set the tone for the film and for the audience to take Cecil’s character to heart. As Cecil journeys through his life and the audience goes along with him, we are always reminded of the humble beginnings and horrific life shown at the beginning of the film. THE BUTLER does a masterful job in setting up the dark realities of an American South we’d all like to forget, but why does this film’s trailer include a Black Panther Shootout scene which wasn’t included in the final film? One wonders if the Black Panther Shootout scene was too accurate or did it take away from what becomes the almost insufferable mood of this film.
The Presidential route of THE BUTLER begins with Robin Williams playing a non-plussed Eisenhower with a poor makeup job. While Mr. Williams ably interprets Eisenhower in a few short scenes, he looked much more like Truman than Ike.
Further, these scenes took place during the 1957 Little Rock High School Desegregation incident, with Mr. Williams’ Eisenhower seemingly being forced to take any action to help the Black students integrate the high school. This is not the truth by any reasonable measure. To display a naivety or a blind-spot regarding race, President Eisenhower is portrayed to be unaware and almost blasé about race relations as in the film, Ike keeps complaining as scripted, “why is Governor Faubus (of Arkansas) FORCING me to do this?”
While Mr. Williams may have been a run at “stunt-casting” that turned out wrong, Director Daniels and his Casting Directors, Leah Daniels and Billy Hopkins, are to be commended for including Terence Howard (“Howard”), Cuba Gooding Jr. (“Carter Wilson”), and Lenny Kravitz (“James Holloway”) in THE BUTLER. Gooding turns in his best performance in a long time, Howard steals his scenes from Oprah and Kravitz displays continued growth as an actor.
In a small, but incredibly important role…
Clarence Williams, III (“Maynard”) deserves an Oscar nomination. This Mr. Williams is excellent in his short scenes training a teenage Cecil Gaines to be a professional at his job after saving him from the Klan or a jail cell. Additionally, Adriane Lenox, who plays “Gina” (Terence Howard’s Wife and Oprah’s Best Friend) does a great job with her long-suffering wife role.
The film takes a dark turn when Mr. Forester’s character
has a physical confrontation with his son “Earl Gaines” (played by rapper/actor David Banner) after he joins the Black Panthers and returns home with an Angela Davis-like fiancée who burps at dinner and who is willing to kill for “the cause.” This particular storyline has a payoff later on when Mr. Forester’s character has a major realization that he was wrong all his life about his son’s Civil Rights protesting (via an early 1960s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)-like group) and later more radical activities leading to many arrests. This realization comes after Cecil’s much bigger and unfortunately, quite ludicrous realization that he wants to retire as a butler because… after Nancy and Ronald Reagan invite him to a State Dinner, he feels that he is being used for a show prop, rather than being rewarded for winning the Black White House Staff equal pay and promotion opportunities that the White Staff members received for DECADES.
What follows as a one-two punch is an absurdly, imagined conversation with President Reagan, in which a somewhat-racist Reagan is portrayed by Alan Rickman to be dawdling and confused about South African Apartheid Policies and “Civil Rights.” In Mr. Daniels’ film, Ronald Reagan’s Presidency is sadly used as the key event to force Cecil Gaines to quit being a “Butler” and to become a “Black Man.” The Reagan scenes are followed up with a resolution between Cecil and his prodigal son, Earl, which serves to underscore the central problem in this film’s story… square pegs are forced to fit round holes. And this is AFTER “Nancy Reagan“ (played by the stunt-casted Jane Fonda) invites Cecil to a State Dinner and says that “…we have too many Hawks. We need more Moderates around here.” It is highly doubtful that First Lady Nancy Reagan, circa 1985, would ever have said something like that to any butler let alone Cecil.
A 1960 White House kitchen scene with a John Cusack portrayal of Richard Nixon plays much better as then-Vice President Nixon is shown arriving in the main kitchen to try and pitch Cecil, Carter and James to vote for him in the coming Election. Mr. Kravitz’ character (James) actually presents some grievances to Nixon’s query on what ails Black America, ergo the Black White House Staff, while the other men stay quiet. After Nixon hands the men some campaign buttons and exits, there is only silence. Nothing positive, nothing negative. The scene doesn’t lead to anywhere in particular, but serves as what is likely the most honest Presidential scene in the film. What is disappointing, however, is Mr. Cusack’s slightly over-the-top “uncomfortability tic” while portraying Nixon. Nixon, as history shows, was not uncomfortable around Black people like the patriarchal John F. Kennedy was during his life. For a serious film taking its Audience on a FORREST GUMP-like journey, a scene like this Nixon one is necessary to re-calibrate the audience and to set up the next and most important decade of the film – the 60s. The only explanation for Cusack’s portrayal is setting up the Nixon character to later on be more sinister and more contradictory as President after he loudly announces in 1969 that wants to destroy the Black Panther Party and Black Power.
Where the film comes off the rails
a bit is during the central Presidential term of the film, the Kennedy Administration. During this time, there are two parallel story threads – Cecil serving a suddenly much younger and vibrant White House while Earl is participating in the nascent beginnings of the SNCC-like group during these tumultuous years of the Civil Rights movement. As one might expect in a film such as this, all the most poignant scenes and the most angelic/heroic Presidential portrayal is reserved for President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. A President who was practically dragged kicking and screaming to support Civil Rights for Blacks in our country and overlooked Jim Crow Laws until well after he took office.
The fact that the film shows Kennedy not “getting Civil Rights” until after Alabama National Guard were needed to help admit Black students to the University of Alabama and the Birmingham Police Department sics German Shepherds on the Freedom Marchers is one of the few examples of where Mr. Daniels got the history right. Unfortunately, the big Kennedy Speech on Civil Rights shown in THE BUTLER is an inaccurate portrayal as the real President Kennedy did not look straight into the camera and deliver an emotional speech. He frequently consulted his speech notes in an attempt to play down any White Southern (and Democrat) fears that he would push the Federal Government to go too far. Yes, THE BUTLER is a narrative and dramatic film, not a documentary. However, it would have been nice to see this very important speech accurately portrayed so it would have openly displayed the conflicts and contradictions of the time in which Cecil interacts with his President. This lack of accuracy and reality also extends through the subsequent President Lyndon Baines Johnson scenes. The approaches taken with the Kennedy and Johnson storylines make the film feel contrived. Even though it said it was “inspired by true events.”
The Obama Campaign Celebration scene towards the film’s end (after the 1980’s Apartheid Scenes) are tacked on and feels like “paint-by-numbers” filmmaking. In the scene’s establishing shot, there is a white gay couple kissing on a porch as they hold babies and more deliberate examples of a veritable rainbow coalition in casting which felt quite out-of-place for a film focusing on the Black Experience. To close the film with President Obama becoming President and then supposedly inviting Cecil to the White House for a private, one-on-one meeting (which never occurred) really undermined much of what LEE DANIEL’S THE BUTLER was supposed to be… an entertaining, real film.When Cecil puts on a tie that a blood-covered Jackie Kennedy gave him in the wake of her husband’s assassination and then adds on his JFK and LBJ pins, it becomes clear that THE BUTLER wasn’t about a man or an unique life. It was about a Movement and this $30M film clumsily fails to portray that. As THE BUTLER ends, Lee Daniels reveals himself to be a Democrat Filmmaker and “spikes the film can” with a montage of key speech lines from Kennedy, LBJ (“We Shall Overcome,”), and then Obama. This is all the more disappointing as Mr. Daniels up to now has really been a filmmaker pushing his own creative envelope and not one subscribing to the Spike Lee or Oliver Stone models of filmmaking. After seeing PRECIOUS and admiring his considerable talent, this current film is a disappointment.
If you know of someone who doubts that Media-bias exists and how history is stolen and retold differently by the Entertainment business, then by all means make sure you and they see this film. If you’d like to get an idea of why many Black people in our country express disdain for the Republican Party and why some fail to see that our country has improved immensely over the film’s time frame… please see this film for yourself. LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER is one of the most important films of this year and it will generate lots of controversy. One wishes that the film didn’t manipulate its far-reaching history so much as it tried to tell a story and deliver a message. The historical conflicts of Race in America and specifically the treatment of Blacks is profoundly saddening, but LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER cheapens it by distorting the actual history involved and is almost disrespectful of those who actually lived it together.