Friday, August 30, 2013
The film was theatrically released by The Weinstein Company on August 16, 2013, to mostly positive reviews and was a box office hit, grossing over $121 million worldwide against a budget of $30 million.
More historical pageant than drama, Lee Daniels' The Butler takes the Forrest Gump approach to another corner of American history, filtering the dramatic civil rights movement of the 1960s through the life of an ordinary butler who served seven different presidents from Dwight D Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan. Based very loosely on a real man, The Butler sets its mild-mannered protagonist Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) in sharp contrast to his son Louis (David Oyelowo), a Freedom Rider and eventually Black Panther who conveniently finds himself at the centre of a series of civil rights landmark moments.
There are fascinating wrinkles to be found in that relationship, and director Daniels does stumble upon a few. But for the most part his usual heavy hand draws only the thickest lines between two generations of African-Americans, and Danny Strong's script muddles the family story with too many "significant" encounters between Cecil and his presidential employers. It's impossible not to be distracted when Robin Williams appears in a bald cap as Eisenhower, or Liev Schreiber blusters his way across the screen as a noisy Lyndon Johnson. When John Cusack shows up as a flop-sweating Richard Nixon, the film is playing dress-up and passing it as history. By the time Jane Fonda eerily transforms herself into Nancy Reagan, the film itself seems in on the joke.
If it's possible to look past Daniels' directorial flourishes, The Butler does occasionally muster its own power, contrasting Cecil's work at a White House state dinner with Louis's beating by the police after a protest, or the riot that broke out in Washington DC after Martin Luther King's assassination. Aware that he has a good job that provides for his family, Cecil is unwilling to rock the boat politically, which leads to clashes with his son but an otherwise passive performance for Whitaker. Oprah Winfrey, channelling Elizabeth Taylor's Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? performance as Cecil's hard-drinking wife, has more to play with but literally nowhere to go, her scenes almost exclusively limited to their airless, modest home.
When did acting turn into a sub-category of karaoke? When Robin Williams first turns up as Dwight Eisenhower in Lee Daniels' The Butler, his face saggy with prostheses and floured like an overbaked pizza, it draws giggles from the audience. This sort of star turn requires a certain amount of time for audiences to acclimatise; the same giggles greeted the sight of Leonardo DiCaprio, looking like an aged liverwurst as J Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood's 2009 biopic. Half an hour in and we had adjusted.
The Butler doesn't have that luxury, but instead has an entire series of similar impersonations – Liev Schriber as Lyndon Johnson, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan – all waiting in the wings, ready to go every 10 minutes or so.
Lee Daniels appears to have modeled his movie on a visit to Madame Tussauds. Even those characters who aren't famous have a bash at playing famous: Oprah Winfrey, as the butler's wife, "does" Jackie O in one scene. Cuba Gooding Jr, as another butler, "does" James Brown. The whole thing is less a civil rights epic and more a form of panto, the appeal of which is not for audiences to be fooled by a particular performance, but to marvel over the how-do-they-do-that visual puzzle. It turns the movies into a form of celebrity karaoke.
When Steve Martin uttered "I was born a poor black child" in the movie "The Jerk", he was sending up a subgenre of American film a friend of mine dubbed the Why We Be Black movie. Such films explore the sorrows of being a Negro in America with a cornball earnestness that could make you snicker at a lynching or at the sight of yet another black mama in curlers, running out into the street to cradle her bullet-riddled son: "Oh no lawd! NOT MY BAYBEEE!"
"The Color Purple," arguably the greatest WWBB flick ever made, contains a gorgeous rendition of "Maybe God is Trying to Tell You Something" that sends a church congregation and choir out into the countryside to harmonize with juke joint sinners and sharecroppers. It was a fantasy of restoration: The preacher's wayward daughter reunites with her father; black folk stop fighting and fearing one another, gathering into something like a family (if not a force, which would be anathema to Hollywood's unwritten production code).
"Lee Daniel's The Butler" is a WWBB movie about the centuries-old split between House Negroes (the middle class) and Field Negroes (the working class/underclass), and about the clarifying shocks and upheavals required to heal the rift. Right up front, the filmmakers present a visual metaphor for black grief as horrific and eerily beautiful as the drowned wife in "Night of the Hunter" sitting in a car at the bottom of a lake, her hair undulating like some kind of angelic rays: two dead black men hung high by the neck, facing each other in a sad embrace. There is no snickering at this one.
Yet there's plenty of snickering and full-on laughter throughout "The Butler," which Lee Daniels directs in about five styles at once, like a Bollywood maestro. No, it's not a musical, but it makes plenty of visual music.
Everybody decries comparing mainstream "black" directors, but everybody secretly does it, so, what the hell, let's play: On the evidence of "The Butler" alone, I'd say Daniels will grow in greater esteem with cineastes than either pioneer Spike Lee or box office champ Tyler Perry. Daniels assimilates their scattershot styles and ambitions into his own alternately operatic, comic book, hyper-realistic, improvisatory and programmatic style. If Quentin Tarantino is a "mixtape" filmmaker, Daniels is a channel-surf director, flipping through several types of TV melodrama with confidence and a sense of righteous purpose—and sometimes even imagination that ranges beyond the cable dial.
Working from the true story of Eugene Allen's rise from field hand to longstanding White House butler, Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong attempt to "Forrest Gump" African-American history, from Jim Crow to Obama's election. Whitaker's Allen-modeled Cecil Gaines backs into historical moments like Forrest, but what looks like passive obliviousness is just a black man playing one of the only roles that granted him upward mobility in the 20th Century, the unquestioning servant. Gaines learns the value of silence as a boy, seeing his father shot to death for simply objecting to his cotton field overseer taking liberties with his wife (Mariah Carey). Almost every instance where Cecil feels compelled to protest is haunted by this memory. Speak up and you die.