Lee Daniels’ The Butler (The Weinstein Company, PG-13)

Lee-Daniels-The-Butler 75Seems like it should have been boring but isn’t really at all.

Lee-Daniels-The-Butler 500

It seems like the first question any film critic should ask about Lee Daniels’ The Butler is this: Is Lee Daniels really a big enough name to justify including his name extraneously in the official title of a film like this? I have trouble believing that a whole lot of people even know his name at this point, and it seems like sticking it in there will just confuse people, rather than selling the film, which I imagine is the goal. And for the record, Daniels, who went to Lindenwood University here in St. Louis, is best known as the director of Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, which was of course another movie title with way too many unnecessary words, and also a rather good film. Thankfully, The Butler is a rather good film as well.

Which leads to the second question a film critic might ask about the marketing of this film: Why is it being released now, in August, with a not-very-enticing ad campaign, instead of during awards season? It has the feel of a typical Oscar bait movie; it’s something of an epic period/character piece, it has a cast replete with past Oscar winners (Forest Whitaker, Robin Williams, Cuba Gooding Jr.) and past Oscar nominees (Terrence Howard), and of course Daniels himself was only the second black man ever nominated in the Best Director category. And, like I said, it’s a good film; it may not be perfect, but it’s much, much better than a lot of the dreck Hollywood trots out during awards season (I’m looking at you, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close).

The butler of the title is Cecil Gaines, who when we catch up with him at a young age at the beginning of the film (played by Michael Rainey Jr. at this age), is working on a cotton farm with his family in the 1920s, and the circumstances appear to be little different from what they were before the Civil War. Once he gets older (and morphs into actor Aml Ameen as a teenager), Cecil escapes the South and finds some work as a butler in Washington D.C. After some years at that he morphs into Forest Whitaker, a well-respected butler in the D.C. area, who is scouted to be a butler at the White House, often working directly for the president himself, which he does from the Eisenhower administration, all the way through to the Reagan administration some 30 years later.

This story is the one the advertising materials has been stressing (as well as that title), and that’s fine, but a lot of screen time is devoted to Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo, at least for the majority of the movie), and his story is much more interesting than Cecil’s. Louis grows up at once loving his father but not understanding his tendency toward servitude of the white man, and as a result, when he comes of age he first joins Martin Luther King Jr.’s Freedom Riders, and then gets into the teachings of Malcolm X and joins the Black Panthers. Louis is carefully drawn and is the most intelligent character in the movie (those presidents included), and part of me wants to say that I wish this movie were about him rather than Cecil, but in at least some ways it is, so why should I complain? Also, it’ll be a nice surprise for the audience to see a little bit of militancy in what on the surface appears to be a staid old drama.

Given all the decades the film covers, all of the presidents and their various hangers-on and underlings, all of the major characters, and the people they interact with, etc., The Butler has a pretty enormous cast. By and large, it is cast very well. Of course, the big name that I haven’t yet dropped is Oprah Winfrey, who plays Cecil’s wife Gloria, who here is in her first dramatic role in 15 years and does a fine job of it. I vote for Oyelowo as MVP of the movie, and Yaya Alafia, who plays Louis’ girlfriend Carol, makes quite an impression as well, transforming slowly from a good-girl college student to an Angela Davis clone. Also, all of the performers who play presidents work remarkably well (and all of the presidents are portrayed positively, which is remarkable), even when it seems like they wouldn’t—aside from Robin Williams as Eisenhower and Alan Rickman as Reagan, we have James Marsden as JFK (and Minka Kelly as Jackie) and even John Cusack as Richard Nixon. Daniels is making a habit of casting Cusack in out-of-character roles, between this and in last year’s The Paperboy, where he played a convict. And by the way, The Paperboy is a real train wreck of a film, as was Daniels’ debut, 2005’s Shadowboxer, so it appears that only every other Lee Daniels movie is a good one. That said, I’m pretty sure he’s incapable of making a boring movie, so maybe he should continue to tackle projects like this one in the future, which seems like it should have been boring but isn’t really at all. | Pete Timmermann

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