Monday, August 26, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler (**1/2)

Directed by Lee Daniels

Lee Daniels is a filmmaker of high ideals and low taste, and he enjoys making the two things clash violently in his films. What usually follows are sloppy stories, interesting casting decisions, and more times than not, a movie that is more fun to talk about then to watch. Precious was his big crossover hit, a harrowing story of inner-city poverty, that earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director. His follow-up, The Paperboy seemed to take any drop of sincerity that Precious had and totally disregard it. Paperboy was a movie about dirty, sweaty people with dark souls and even darker secrets. It seemed preoccupied with being a showcase for these despicable characters, had particularly carnal performances from its cast - which included Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, and John Cusack - and seemed completely cynical. But now, with The Butler, Daniels tries his hand at the esteemed Civil Rights drama, perhaps the most sincere of all cinema's sub-genres. It's a combination that is quite interesting indeed.

The Butler (which became Lee Daniels' The Butler after Warner Brothers threatened the Weinstein Company with legal action over a 1916 film of the same name which they claimed to own the naming rights to) makes claims of being "inspired by true events". This is becoming one of my least favorite disclaimers before a movie, because it gives filmmakers credence to tell stories that are essentially fiction while parading the illusion of important history. In reality, Lee Daniels' The Butler is based on Eugene Allen, a White House butler who was featured in a Washington Post article written by Wil Haygood, that went on to be adapted into a screenplay by Danny Strong. The Butler ends up becoming an end-to-end biopic about Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a man who was skilled from a very young age in serving whites, and acutely talented at avoiding the controversy and the turbulence that was the 1960's Civil Rights movement.

As a child, Cecil was raised on a cotton farm within a cruel Georgia plantation in the 1920's. At a very young age, Cecil witnessed his mother get raped by one of the plantation's more temperamental owners, and when his father confronted the rapist, he was shot dead. After the incident, the plantation's eldest owner, Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave) turned Cecil from a field worker to a house worker. This set the foundation for what would eventually be Cecil's future career. As a teenager, Cecil decided to leave the plantation, but had trouble finding work in a country that was still very prejudiced despite blacks being free for several decades. It isn't until he's caught breaking into a bakery trying to steal some food in the middle of the night by Maynard (Clarence Williams III), that he gets his first opportunity. Cecil convinces Maynard to help him get a job serving. Under Maynard, Cecil perfects his already solid serving abilities at a fancy North Carolina hotel.

Maynard is offered a new job in Washington D.C., but turns it down since he'd rather stay in Carolina. He instead, suggests that these men meet with Cecil, and soon enough Cecil is working as the newest butler in The White House for President Eisenhower. He's shown around the premises by the house maitre d' Freddie Fallows (Colman Domingo), and is eventually introduced to his two main co-workers and fellow butlers, Carter (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and James (Lenny Kravitz). At home, Cecil is married to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), a sharp-tongued, boozing housewife, endlessly supportive and proud of her husband's achievement, but also perturbed by the long hours that his job requires. The married couple have two sons, Louis and Charlie. Louis (Danny Oyelowo), the oldest son, is very smart and very aware of the swaying tide that is coming in the 1960's. Louis is also slightly ashamed that his father has made a living serving white presidents who may or may not have the black American's best interests at heart.

Cecil is the White House butler for thirty-four years, from Eisenhower to Reagan. Through it all, he manages to stand silently in the background as all of them make both tossed-off remarks and history-altering decisions regarding the rights of blacks in America. It's all rather convenient in that Forrest Gump-ian kind of way, but at least The Butler doesn't condescend to make the audience feel that Cecil actually changed history, but instead treats Cecil as an all-important observer. The Butler's far more interesting moments come from Cecil and Louis' rocky father-son relationship. Louis becomes more militant as he leaves home for college, becoming a member of first the passive Freedom Riders and then later the much more aggressive Black Panther party. Cecil is sickened by Louis' behavior, constantly spending nights in jail and starting trouble with uppity whites still resistant to the changes in race relations. Louis can hardly abide Cecil's lifetime of servitude to white men.

This is where the casting of Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines is a slight stroke of genius. As the matriarch of this shaky family, Winfrey takes charge in a way that is both powerful but still vulnerable, trashy and home-dwelling but never undignified. When met with a powerful brush of loneliness, she even considers a tryst with the slimy next door neighbor (Terrence Howard), but is even able to come out of that situation with her head held high. It's a performance that doesn't have to be as good as it is, but Winfrey instills it with the necessary attitude and vanity to make Gloria a full human being. Too often throughout the film, Louis and Cecil feel like symbols, placards on which Lee Daniels decides to write the film's main themes, and Oyelowo and Whitaker are too often willing to subdue charm for the right of the screenplay. It's Winfrey's refreshing performance that makes the film's family dynamic much more palatable.

Which is why I would have like to have spent more time in this home, as opposed to the revolving door of presidents that take up so much of the movie. Each one is played by a famous actor who seems to be acting in a different movie. Daniels has always been a bit of an adventure when it comes to casting, and that's a big reason as to why his movies are so interesting; the position he's willing to put certain performers. But Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower? Liev Schrieber as Lyndon Johnson? To their credit, James Marsden's JFK and Alan Rickman's Reagan are almost distractingly NOT terrible - like no one let them know it was supposed to be a joke. With the aforementioned The Paperboy, John Cusack (who plays Richard Nixon) has now been a particularly pugnacious kind of awful in two straight Lee Daniels movies. Part of me is genuinely excited about how they will complete the trilogy. At the very least, the casting decisions for the presidents had an antagonistic quality that seems to fit with the average Lee Daniels production, but casting Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy just felt tacky.

I still don't know if Lee Daniels has ever made a movie that I actually like (though it should be said, I still haven't seen his 2005 debut, Shadowboxer), but his movies always seem to exist on some center of surreality that are unlike anything else that I've ever seen. If anything, The Butler is the most earnest, sentimental movie he's ever made, and for the most part, it really earns the sentiment that it achieves. When the movie ends with Cecil celebrating President Obama's election, it crosses into a political arena that might make some viewers roll their eyes, but I think it has its place here - it's just that Daniels handles the execution rather clumsily. I would have liked The Butler to have been a tad less simplistic and crowd-pleasing. I felt Daniels had the ability and the confidence to tackle race in a Hollywood movie without washing out the harshest details. This is where the appreciation for Spike Lee's movies seems far beneath where it should be these days. But alas, The Butler is a big hit and seems to be inspiring thousands of viewers. After making the raunch that was The Paperboy, I guess that he could turn this one out right after is a bit of a miracle.

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