Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Review

Every year or so, there are two types of Oscar-bound films about race relations: one that challenge the status quo and one that conforms to cultural norms. Guess which one starring Oprah Winfrey is?

Every year sees a certain number of films that sprinkle themselves across the race-relations spectrum.  In 1989, for instance, we had Do The Right Thing on the one end and Driving Miss Daisy on the other. In 2004 it was White Girls and Crash, in a respectively bizarre contrast. Still, you get the idea: Movies that attempt to call the race relation game as it really is versus movies that align with a culturally accepted notion of race relations as they have played out in America. This year proves no different, with Fruitvale Station on the one end and Lee Daniels’ The Butler on the other. Quite perfectly, both films in question this year have Forest Whitaker involved in some capacity, enjoy the distribution of the Academy Award-hungry Weinstein Company, and, quite expectedly, do indeed pander for those Oscars. Yet, after seeing both movies, one thing has become clear for me. Fruitvale Station definitely deserves some recognition—if not an actual Oscar or two—while Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which coincidentally was not based on the novel Push by Sapphire, succeeds in little else than whole-heartedly accepting cultural norms. Think The Help, but with way more stars and presidents played by stars. If you can get past the film’s non-groundbreaking stature and just accept that its messages, and not to mention its civil rights timeline, are totally off, then maybe, just maybe, you can non-critically enjoy the film. To be fair, Daniels did get some things right. Namely, and most predominantly, Forest Whitaker. Whitaker is rarely ever not good in a role and his take on Cecil Gaines, the White House butler made famous by a 2008 Washington Post article, proved to be no exception to this rule.  In fact, the only thing that stops him from delivering another downright amazing performance, which tends to be the status quo for Whitaker, originates from what appears to be a facet of the real Gaines, who served as the White House butler from 1952 to 1986: His speech. Which. Sounds. Like. This.  Whitaker’s take on Gaines’ drawl and manner of speaking is so slow and drawn out that it feels less like a caricature portrait and more like a racist portrayal of a black man who has not received a formal education. It’s so distracting that it ends up not mattering if Gaines actually spoke like this in real life. Leaving that critique aside, though, overall Whitaker is excellent. The second thing Lee Daniels’ The Butler boasts, which most likely plays a bigger role in the film’s marketability, is its huge (HUGE) cast of stars. With a cast made up of Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Vanessa Redgrave, Mariah Carey, Robin Williams, Melissa Leo, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Live Schreiber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Alex Pettyfer and Lenny Kraviz, there is no way this movie is not getting a good amount of ticket sales. This is especially the case when considering that, first, Oprah Winfrey plays a huge role as Cecil’s wife, and second, the presidents that Cecil serves throughout his tenure are played by some of the huge actors listed above (Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon and so on). Just how did these two factors play out? Well, Winfrey is fine. Her performance is nowhere near Whitaker’s in terms of quality, but it is adequately serviceable (at least until the big ending).  Similarly, the actors playing presidents were hard-pressed to play their actual roles rather than play themselves playing these roles. Instead of watching Eisenhower, I was watching Robin Williams play Eisenhower; instead of watching Ronald and Nancy Reagan, I was watching Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda play Mr. and Mrs. Reagan. That is, the film’s bankable star factor never manages to leave the film. Only the most ardent celebrity filmgoer will be able to enjoy the Lee Daniels’ The Butler dazzling parade of familiar faces. The other defining component of the film is the time periods that it attempted to encapsulate within several hours. Just as eras and their fluid, perceived accuracy are crucial in, say, Forrest Gump, they are critical here. Indeed, half of the joy of the movie is seeing how the hair, clothes, and pop culture references change alongside Cecil’s notions of politics immediately affecting his life. The four main decades represented—the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s—like the film’s take on the civil rights movement, are quite stock. During the 60s, hair was long; during the 70s, there was a prevalence of afros; in the 80s Nancy Reagan-style reigned. Strangely, these postcard generalities mostly work with the vibe of the film. What did not gel is how kitsch and limited its portrayal of the Civil Rights Movement was (yes, Martin King Jr. and Malcolm X existed at the same time and no, they were not mutually exclusive).  Overall, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is passable at best, like Winfrey’s acting, and mildly racist at worst. Going in to see the film with an uncritical eye is important. If you can achieve this lax state of mind, then you will have a more enjoyable experience than this critic. If you are unable to do just that, then at the very least you will have fun watching Jane Fonda play Nancy Reagan—what a trip that was—and seeing the different prosthetics put on the slew of actors to make them look more like their presidential counterparts. Either way, do not go in expecting something Oscar-worthy. Save that for Fruitvale Station. Den of Geek Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars


2 out of 5