The first three films made by Lee Daniels—Shadowboxer (2005), Precious (2009), and last year’s wildly controversial The Paperboy—are not everyone’s cup of tea. The director tends to deal unflinchingly (and sometimes clumsily) with particularly touchy subject matter in ways that don’t always sit well with audiences or critics. (The A.V. Club anointed The Paperboy the “worst film of 2012,” saying, “Most stinkers are easily identifiable from a distance, but every so often a filmmaker somehow manages to persuade the world that an outhouse is an air freshener.”)
Given his very particular style and sensibility, the new trailer for the star-studded The Butler—featuring Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, and Vanessa Redgrave among many others—is a curiosity. Daniels’ first foray into nonfiction looks like… a pretty standard prestige picture. Forrest Whitaker leads the cast as Eugene Allen, the real-life White House butler who served during the terms of eight U.S. Presidents, and with a sweeping orchestral score and an ambitious tackling of several decades-worth of American historical moments and figures, the story of Allen’s life is reminiscent of another crowd-pleasing historical epic (albeit a fictionalized one): Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump.
Daniels has said there’s less of himself in this movie, saying in an interview last fall that The Butler is “the closest I will come to as a work-for-hire.” “That was a big compromise,” he added, “because it’s PG-13 and there were producers attached to it before I came aboard.”
At first, the trailer hints that Allen’s may become yet another Hollywood film that treats its black subjects as “dignified,” with racism something that has since been quarantined and left behind in the distant past. After he’s told by another black servant that he must abstain from politics while working in the White House, Allen arrives smiling and ready to serve. But before we simply assume that this is The Legend of Bagger Vance: Caddying for the Prez, later scenes show Allen in conflict with his son, a Black Panther (played by David Oyelowo). So this film may very well dig into the generational rift between black American parents of a certain age and their more radical children.
Not every movie that honors a black domestic worker has to be The Help: It is possible to challenge ideas about race and class while making such a film. We’ll just have to wait and see how far a creatively-restrained Daniels was able to go.