Film Review: ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’

The Butler

This sprawling, highly fictional biopic of longtime White House butler Eugene Allen is at once gratuitously sentimental and genuinely rousing.

The director of “Precious” and “The Paperboy” plays things relatively straight in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” a sprawling, highly fictional biopic of longtime White House butler Eugene Allen that also positions itself as a panoramic snapshot of the African-American experience across nine decades. But if Daniels has tamped down the kinky sexuality and outre stylistic flourishes for his first PG-13 outing, his handprints can still be found in the film’s volatile mix of acting styles, gratuitous sentimentality cut with moments of real emotional power, and a tone that seesaws between serious social melodrama and outsized chitlin’-circuit theatrical. At its root the kind of starry, old-fashioned prestige pic the studios used to make, this stealthy late-summer release from the Weinstein Co. (smartly moved up from its original fall date) stands to make a modest killing with oxygen-deprived adult moviegoers, whom the pic will have pretty much to itself between now and the start of awards season.

First reported in a 2008 Washington Post article by Wil Haygood, the story of Allen — who served as a White House butler under eight administrations, eventually achieving the position of maitre d’ — is the stuff that many a producer’s Oscar dreams are made of. So much so that it’s shocking it took years, and more than 40 credited producers of varying kinds, to actually get it to the screen. It’s history as seen through the eyes of the humble envoy to the great men of his time: a black “The King’s Speech” or “The Remains of the Day.” (Daniels himself has likened the film to “Forrest Gump,” a comparison that holds for both good and ill.) And if the real life of your protagonist isn’t inherently dramatic enough … well, that’s what Hollywood screenwriters are for.

So Daniels and writer Danny Strong (a Beltway specialist whose credits include “Recount” and “Game Change”) transform Allen into the fictionalized Cecil Gaines, whose life begins inauspiciously on a Georgia cotton plantation in the 1920s, where he witnesses both of his sharecropper parents (David Banner and Mariah Carey) brutalized by the snarling white boss man (Alex Pettyfer, in one of the pic’s more thankless roles). Shown pity by the elderly matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave), the boy Cecil (Michael Rainey Jr.) is made a “house nigger” and trained in the ways of serving whites that will benefit him over the course of his career. (“The room should feel empty when you’re in it,” Redgrave instructs.)

That kicks off a rather pro-forma account of Gaines’ ascent through the ranks of servitude, first as the teenage apprentice to a kindly North Carolina hotel butler (Clarence Williams III), then on to Washington, D.C.’s swank Excelsior Hotel, where the now-adult Cecil (Forest Whitaker) catches the eye of a senior Truman staffer. The White House scenes that follow prove livelier and more interesting, as Gaines gets indoctrinated by a fussbudget maitre d’ (the excellent Colman Domingo) and learns the ropes from the reigning head butler (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his second-in-command (Lenny Kravitz). In one of the few observations that Daniels doesn’t drive home with a sledgehammer, the presidential mansion is seen as a veritable simulacrum of the plantation house, with the same expectation of “invisibility” for service staff, who are also instructed to see nothing and hear nothing of the sometimes momentous events taking place before them.

Where “Forrest Gump” kept its parade of historical personages restricted to real archival footage, however, “The Butler” nearly capsizes in the first hour under a flotilla of special-guest-star presidents and first ladies who seem imported directly from Madame Tussauds. Given Daniels’ background as a casting director and the savvy stunt casting he’s done in the past, it’s stunning how off most of the calculations are here, from Robin Williams’ embalmed Eisenhower to Alan Rickman’s ghoulishly overacted Reagan. And while Strong has written a sly, funny scene in which then-vice president Nixon panders for votes among the kitchen staff, John Cusack is so un-Nixonian in the role that the whole thing feels like a put-on. (Tyler Perry would have been preferable.) Liev Schreiber and James Marsden fare better as LBJ and JFK, respectively, even if their scenes never quite transcend a certain mechanical, Illustrated Classics feel. Amazingly, the film omits one of the juiciest anecdotes from Haygood’s article, in which JFK blanches at the sight of Sammy Davis Jr. arriving for an official White House soiree with his white wife May Britt on his arm.

Only Whitaker and his stoic, sentry-like presence keep things from turning completely corny. Gaines is a tricky role to navigate because the character is so inherently recessive, but Whitaker digs in deep and gives a marvelous under-the-skin performance; he seems to catch the very essence of a man who has spent his whole life trying not to be seen. In her first live-action dramatic role since 1998’s “Beloved,” Oprah Winfrey makes the most of her few scenes as Cecil’s dutiful wife, Gloria, though she isn’t given much to work with, and the pic’s efforts to manufacture some third-act marital strife feels plastered on for cheap dramatic effect. Meanwhile, whatever seismic historical events don’t pass under Gaines’ nose at work turn up in his living room like clockwork, thanks to one son, Charlie (Elijah Kelly), who goes off to Vietnam, and another, Louis (David Oyelowo), who devotes himself to the civil-rights struggle.

Yet, almost in spite of itself, the film belatedly springs to life, largely thanks to Oyelowo, who plays Louis from a teenager to a middle-aged man with some help from makeup, but mostly with the transformative inner force of a great actor. Even when the plotting remains leaden and predictable, he’s electrifying to watch, and as the character makes his way through various protest movements (from the Freedom Riders to the Black Panthers), Daniels develops a strong sense of the inner complexities and contradictions of the civil-rights landscape. (When Louis shows up for a family dinner looking like a cross between Che Guevara and Eldridge Cleaver, accusing Sidney Poitier — and, indirectly, Cecil himself — of being an Uncle Tom, the scene is pointed and funny for all the right reasons.) Gradually, the tension between Louis’ increasingly radical views and Cecil’s noncommittal ones becomes the most compelling thing about the movie, and Daniels has the good sense to go with it.

“The Butler” is being sold with the ad line “One quiet voice can ignite a revolution,” and the movie strives to suggest that, by sheer, steady force of presence, Gaines — and men and women like him — managed to have a significant impact on race relations in America. But in dramatic terms, it never quite makes the case. Gaines’ voice is so quiet that it takes him until the 1980s to make a stand for equal pay for blacks on the White House staff — a moment Daniels treats as a watershed, but which seems more like a sad reflection on the slow crawl of racial progress at the seat of government and, by extension, in Hollywood, too, where “Driving Miss Daisy” (which “The Butler” also resembles) was trumping “Do the Right Thing” at the Oscars around the same time Gaines would have been asking for that raise. If this is a revolution, one shudders to think of the status quo.

There’s no denying, though, that Daniels knows how to push an audience’s buttons, and as crudely obvious as “The Butler” can be — whether juxtaposing a Woolworth’s lunch-counter protest with a formal White House dinner, or showing a character keeling over at the breakfast table with oxygen tank attached — it’s also genuinely rousing. By the end, it’s hard not to feel moved, if also more than a bit manhandled.

Pic’s modest $25 million budget — small for a period drama of this scale — is reflected in a White House set with a marked soundstage feel, ill served by cinematographer Andrew Dunn’s gauzy, diffuse lighting schemes. But the costumes by Ruth Carter (“Amistad,” “Malcolm X”) are generally superb, as are the prosthetic makeup effects of Clinton Wayne and Oscar winner Matthew Mungle.

Film Review: 'Lee Daniels' The Butler'

Reviewed at Academy Theater at Lighthouse Intl., New York, July 25, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 132 MIN.  

Production

A Weinstein Co. release and presentation of a Lura Ziskin production in association with Windy Hill Pictures, Follow Through Prods., Salamander Pictures and Pam Williams Prods. Produced by Pamela Oas Williams, Laura Ziskin, Lee Daniels, Buddy Patrick, Cassian Elwes. Executive producers, Michael Finley, Sheila C. Johnson, Brett Johnson, Matthew Salloway, Earl W. Stafford, Danny Strong, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Len Blavatnik, Aviv Giladi, Vince Holden, James T. Bruce IV, R. Bryan Wright, Liz Destro, Jordan Kessler, Hilary Shor, Adam J. Merims, Adonis Hadjiantonis, David Ranes. Co-producers, David Jacobson, Julia Barry, Simone Sheffield, Valerie Hoffman. Co-executive producers, Charles Saveur Bonan, Kim Leadford, Harry I. Martin Jr., Ari Daniel Pinchot, Jonathan Rubenstein, Allen Frederic.

Crew

Directed by Lee Daniels. Screenplay, Danny Strong, inspired by the article “A Butler Well Served By This Election” by Wil Haygood. Camera (color, 35mm), Andrew Dunn; editor, Joe Klotz; music, Rodrigo Leao; music supervisor, Lynn Fainchtein; production designer, Tim Galvin; art director, Jason Stewart; set decorator, Diane Lederman; set designers, Sarah Forrest, Michelle Harmon, Brian Waits; costume designer, Ruth E. Carter; sound (Dolby Digital), Jay Meagher; supervising sound editor/designer, Robert Hein; re-recording mixers, Michael Barry, Robert Hein; visual effects, the Molecule, Pixel Magic; stunt coordinator, Jeff Galpin; associate producers, Wil Haygood, Horatio Bacon, Andrew Herwitz, Christina Papagjika, Eric Falkenstein, Manos Gavras, Bobby Sain; assistant director, Lisa Satriano; second unit director, Sebastian Silva; second unit camera, Francis James; casting, Billy Hopkins, Leah Daniels-Butler.

With

Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams, Clarence Williams III, Yaya Alafia, Aml Ameen, Lavell "Banner" Crump, Colman Domingo, Nelsan Ellis, Nealla Gordon, Elijah Kelley, Minka Kelly, Adriane Lenox, Mo McRae, Pernell Walker, Jesse Williams, David Banner, Alex Pettyfer, Michael Rainey Jr.

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  1. Susan Wells says:

    Loved that movie. actually he is my favorite actor. Love watching his movies.

  2. M says:

    I was curious what are freedom riders? I thought it was freedom writers, as in freedom of speech for all, but now I think I misinterpreted that? I thought the movie was really good. Odd as it may seem, I thought both father and son were both right on their stance, even though opposing. One might have been more valid than another, but I didn’t give it any further thought.

  3. ickey DeKeyzer says:

    No way! this movie was raw,bold, historically most accurate, poiniant and tender. We had a chance to view,at lest on film, what heartbreak, love and trauma black families endured at the whaite mans expense. It should be ahown in all High Schools.

  4. ted says:

    Great point…respect without merit never works.

  5. Sarah Reynolds says:

    So funny that when we watch shows like Downton Abbey the Butler position is considered a position of prestige and privilege. Most races would see it that way. However, when it is a movie about an African American butler the position has to be seen as demeaning. Why can’t this country drop the racial call. This story is about a person who was head butler at the White House. Who would not covet that position? Is it not about time we stop screaming inequality? People, Oprah is one of the richest women in the world. Barack Obama is president of the United States of America and Eugene Allen was head butler in the White House for the thirty years. When is enough, enough???

  6. Julienne says:

    Oh, by the way…just read about all the “Made-Up,” racist stories of rape and murder in the movie..THAT NEVER HAPPENED? Not cool. I guess Lee Daniels has the right to make crap up, to sell tickets.

    • sharon says:

      TELL ME, WHAT MOVIE OR DOCUMENTRARY, IS ALL FACT AND NO FICTION. CAN A BLACK PERSON DO ANYTHING CORRECTLY, WITHOUT BEING AN UNCLE TOM, OR AUNT JANE? THIS IS SUPPOSE TO BE US, AMERICA. FREEDOM OF SPEECH, EXPRESSION. YET, IF IT DOES NOT MEET THE STATUS QUO OF WHAT THE BELTWAY THINKS IS RIGHT, YOU ARE DISCREDITED AND CONSIDERED ANTI AMERICAN. OR A RACE BAITER. HOW SOON DO WE FORGET . IT REALLY HAS HAS NOT BEEN THAT LONG AGO THAT OUR AMERICAN HISTORY WAS TOLD. IT’S A STORY. NOT REALITY. THAT SAD CHAPTER OF THIS HISTORY IS THAT THREE GENEARTIONS SINCE, HAVE NO CIVIC LOVE OR DUTY TO THIS GREAT COUNTRY. IT IS NOT TAUGHT AT HOME OR IN SCHOOLS. ALL MINORITIES ARE “NOT GANSTAS.” GIVE CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DO. IT IS ENTERTAINMENT. QUIT ALL OF THE POLITICS. CAN WE JUST SIT AND WATCH A MOVIE?

      • Julienne says:

        Soooooooooooo, he has to “Make-up,” racist story lines? What was his motive, for doing that? Yeah, no answer…as always.

    • The movie is a work of fiction inspired by a true story.

  7. ted says:

    You got, just the casting alone is hilariously stupid

  8. Diana says:

    Race relations will never get Better If the truth is simply dismissed as Race baiting. The film brought to light some of the more overt and more subtle Aspects of racism For the purpose of the Improving race relations in the USA, Not to race bait. Bravo to the Film makers.

    • Julienne says:

      What do you call it? The rape & murder scenes never happened, in the true story. The white on black crimes in this movie NEVER happened. That’s called sensationalization! Using “Made-up,” white on black crimes to emotional affect the audience.

    • Julienne says:

      The truth is… there’s more black mayors and black Police Chiefs running Police stations than white in the big cities…there’s more blacks in Government than white in our democrat party…there’s more rich blacks every year than whites, Latinos, Asians etc-etc, (including, rappers, professional athletes, actors, musicians) it goes on and on. Get over it. Until you admit that more black-slave owners sold their slaves in Africa, you’ll never get it. AND why do you call yourself African American? I don’t call myself Spanish American…or should I? What about the Irish? Are they Irish Americans…c’mon man.

      • Dee says:

        So there were also African slave owners, how does that change anything. We get it, we lived it. You are the one who doesn’t get it. No movie is perfect. Bravo to Daniels. Job well done.

      • Dee says:

        And your point is….. There are also a lot of white Mayors, Politicians, Athletes, and more white republicans and this proves what? We choose to call ourselves African American because that is where we come from, it’s our heritage. You may choose to represent yourself any way you want because you have always have that freedom, totally your choice. I do know people who refer to thems

      • Dee says:

        It may not have happened in this particular scenario in the book. But whether you believe it or not, that scene took place almost every day in real life. So Daniels took a little creative freedom based on real life situations, done in movies everyday. I guess it’s wrong only if a person of color does it. It just told the truth, it’s our history, don’t hate the truth.

  9. Dee says:

    This kind of movie review makes me sick to my stomach. To read glittering generalities about Lee Daniels’ “first PG-13 outing and the chitlin-circuit” is an insult to Mr. Daniels’ lifestyle choice and his ethnicity. When I read a movie review, I want subtext information about the characters in the movie; not the director! You sound as if you would like to be manhandled – but we do not know by whom!

    I miss Roger Ebert’s movie reviews!

  10. Patsy Forrester says:

    In this review, I would have liked to have heard a little more re: the historical accuracy of this film…I gather there were enough liberties taken w/how our history actually transpired…If that is the case, I will definitely not be spending my $$$ to see this movie…
    If I am to see a movie that has been touted as “historically correct”..then it needs to be just that..

  11. Larry B says:

    Wow, chitlin-circuit, “house nigger”, sledge hammer. The review of negroe movies are the gift that keeps on giving. Where would be without white folks review of our movies. I will see the movie today, just wondering are there any watermelon or lynching scenes. You know we want you white folks to get their money’s worth, until The Help 2 comes out.

  12. C Prier says:

    As a black 68 year old woman brought up in the south, I can relate to many of the racial incidents that were expressed in this movie. This movie reminded me of where we were then and how we are SLOWLY overcoming the injustice that still exist in this society. Lee Daniels did a superb job in delivering this true story to us. I know it may sound like fiction to some because of the brutal hate and violence but……IT HAPPENED!

  13. G. Jardoness says:

    If only Oliver Stone had adapted and directed it? The lid would’ve been blown, exposing the intrigue of unbridled power wielded behind the scenes by mastermind and king-maker Eugene Allen — if that is his ‘real’ name?

    PS. I have yet to receive my complementary Blu-ray and personal visit from Mr. Weinstein office regarding its inclusion this award season.

    • Oliver Stone certainly would not have shied away or blanched in staging JFK’s true colors: “…the film omits one of the juiciest anecdotes from Haygood’s article, in which JFK blanches at the sight of Sammy Davis Jr. arriving for an official White House soiree with his white wife May Britt on his arm.”

  14. ted says:

    Hanoi Jane Fonda is a non starter- you could not pay me to see this movie!

  15. Laurean says:

    As an Ivy League grad and African-American blogger on Pop Culture, I find this review slightly naive about real-life experiences about real people of color in America. My parents are from a small town in North Carolina who lived through the injustice of segregation and the rewards of the Civil Rights Movement (both came from big families with very little money but both pursued higher ed degrees in politics and nursing). They moved to Miami, FL to pursue the American Dream their parents promised them and were successful.

    Just because you haven’t lived that life doesn’t mean it’s “fictional” to another community of “oxygen-deprived adult moviegoers.” And that “chitlin-circuit theatrical” gives audiences hope for something better than the difficult lives of illness, unemployment, crime, and deaths.

    • Julienne says:

      Then tell the entire story…of how African Blacks sold slaves from rival tribes, to every country in the world…EVERY Country, that had a boat to get there.

  16. George Valentin says:

    I am appalled there are some Right Wingers who want to boycott this movie since one of its stars is Jane Fonda. I hope Jane Fonda gets nominated for Best Supporting Actress just to spite them.

  17. sounds like it would have been a better daytime film than a summer blockbuster entry

    • Certainly anyone viewing the trailer experiences that spontaneous feeling that LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER is a TV movie being shown in theaters to capitalize on the story’s based-on-true-events status and the list of notable actors in historic roles as well as the Weinstein’s (shrewdly) hoping to capitalize on the $100k success of “42” (the Jackie Robinson story)…the only reason this film has not gone straight to video.

      Lee Daniels’ best work — so far and by far — is little mentioned: THE SHADOWBOXER, a film that impresses upon the viewer the director’s diversity but also his unbridled talent.

      • Julienne says:

        News Flash…LDaniels made-up the “Rape & Murder,” story-lines to sell tickets. It NEVER happened in the true story. Race-Baiter.

  18. Josh says:

    Please explain the usage of the n-word in your piece. (House N—), just curious. Is this a quote, or usage of the actually word, or spoken by character or a characterization. Popular culture what is acceptable.

    • Modern sensitivities insist upon a certain decorum — or political correctness — while in fact “nigger” is offhandedly used among African-Americans, has not been outlawed by the Congress, and a common epithet throughout American history. A byname equally applied to people of Irish, Jewish, Italian, Latino, German and Arab descent. And, of course, Native-Americans (The Washington “Redskins”).

      If such historical films are indeed based on “true events” then let us not stand on ceremony if a reviewer chooses to use a disparaging turn-of-phrase inside or outside the context of the movie in question, although it is certain the “N-word” (as in the fictional DJANGO UNCHAINED) was worn to a frazzle.

  19. frankofile says:

    Chitlin’ circuit? REALLY?

  20. deborah holt says:

    I guess u pretty much explains it all. Its a good or its a bad movie?

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