Lee Daniels’ The Butler Is Uneven Yet Undeniably Powerful

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Aug. 15 2013 9:03 PM

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

A whirlwind tour of 20th-century race relations through the eyes of a White House servant.

The Butler
Robin Williams and Forest Whitaker in Lee Daniels' The Butler

Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Co.

After you’ve seen Lee Daniels' The Butler, come back and listen to our Spoiler Special:

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

The director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) has never been one to use a subtle technique when an obvious one would work just as well. Daniels’ blunt, go-for-broke approach provides for many clunky moments (and some unintended chuckles) in his ambitious new film The Butler (officially titled, because of a petty intellectual-property quibble among studios, Lee Daniels’ The Butler). But the director’s sometimes absurd bravado—along with Forest Whitaker’s grave, wise performance in the title role—is what gives this outsized and sometimes lumbering film its irrefutable emotional power.

Taking as his point of departure the real-life story of a black White House butler who served under eight consecutive presidents, Daniels attempts to combine an intimate portrait of a single black family with a history of race relations in late-20th-century America. The resulting movie is a curious mélange of politically conscious kitchen-sink drama and sweeping historical epic, Killer of Sheep meets Roots. But even when the seams between these two stories and storytelling styles are at their most evident, The Butler manages to keep barreling forward and to take the audience along with it.

Whitaker’s heavily fictionalized version of the real-life Eugene Allen (who retired from the White House midway through the Reagan administration and lived long enough to vote for Obama before passing away in 2010) is named Cecil Gaines. The son of a Georgia plantation worker (Mariah Carey, in the first of a long string of distracting casting stunts), Cecil is taken in as a “house nigger” by the owner of the plantation (Vanessa Redgrave) after his father is killed by her odious rapist son (Alex Pettyfer). As an adult, Cecil heads north to find work as a waiter in a Washington, D.C., hotel, where his polished professionalism attracts the attention of a White House staffer. After an interview with the condescending head butler (Colman Domingo), who coldly informs him that “we have no tolerance for politics in the White House,” Cecil joins the staff and begins to work his way through the ranks.

Except that, for a White House employee of color, working one’s way through the ranks involves few concrete gains in title, prestige, or salary. As is made clear in two separate negotiating scenes between Cecil and his white supervisor, the pay gap between white and black workers at the presidential residence goes unclosed, and unquestioned, over the course of decades. Through it all, Cecil remains a loyal and deeply committed employee; in fact, his perfectionism about his work is such that his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), considers herself something of a White House widow, and she assuages her loneliness and resentment by drinking too much and carrying on with their layabout neighbor (Terrence Howard).

Gloria and Cecil’s oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), is less than thrilled with what he perceives as his father’s Uncle Tom status in the halls of power. As he grows up, Louis alienates Cecil by becoming increasingly involved in the civil rights struggle, first leaving college to ride the Freedom Bus, then getting hauled to jail with Martin Luther King Jr., then joining the Black Panther party with his more radical girlfriend (Yaya Alafia). Louis’ progress through the stations of black consciousness-raising is a far sight too schematically neat: There’s a TV-miniseries quality to the way that, every time we revisit the character, his Afro has gotten bigger and his politics more extreme. But Oyelowo and Whitaker transcend the sometimes hokey material to establish a credible and moving father-son relationship—when they’re reunited after a period of estrangement, you feel the weight of those lost years in their embrace.

Cecil shares his son’s Zelig-esque knack for being present on the sidelines of major historical developments. He watches Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams) agonize over the desegregation of Southern schools and discreetly bends the ear of Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber) about the importance of passing the Civil Rights Act. (If you just did a double-take at those casting choices, wait till you see John Cusack as a sweaty, stammering Richard Nixon.) It’s during this whistle-stop tour of pivotal moments in presidential history that The Butler is at its weakest. None of the actors playing presidents—not even Alan Rickman, who’s the most credible of the bunch as an unctuous Ronald Reagan—are given enough dialogue or onscreen time to emerge as anything more than wax figures (most of whom would not meet Madame Tussaud’s standards for verisimilitude). The speed with which The Butler caroms through major world events—did the Carter and Ford presidencies even get a scene apiece?—makes you wish it had been developed as a Roots-style miniseries. Then Daniels might have had time to explore the complexities of Cecil’s predicament as an African-American man eavesdropping on the very workings of power that function to keep him and his community in a position of subservience.

Then again, maybe Daniels isn’t interested in exploring the complexities of his subject as much as illuminating its broader contours, and there is something to be said for the bold brushstroke. The Butler can be preachy and mawkish, but it’s heartfelt and honest and moving, not to mention frequently funny. (And not just in those moments—cf., Cusack-as-Nixon—that we’re laughing at.) Winfrey’s performance as the blowsy, hard-drinking but essentially good-hearted Gloria isn’t exactly an accomplished feat of acting—you never forget she’s Oprah—but such is the talk-show legend’s verve and chutzpah that she makes Gloria consistently fun to be around (especially in the late scenes when she’s given the chance to dish out some dryly folksy old-lady humor). As for Whitaker, he takes the smart risk of underplaying a role that could easily have been milked for its tear-jerking potential. If the emotional cues in the script are sometimes too predictable, the expression on Cecil’s face never is—especially in a scene where, invited for the first time to a White House state dinner, he shifts anxiously under the suddenly impenetrable gaze of his own colleagues on the wait staff. A voiceover in which Cecil explains to us his conflicted feelings gilds the lily—Whitaker’s eyes are enough.