The Butler – Lee Daniels and strength of character. (Film Review)

A fine scene in The Butler, defined by power and message (in a film that tries to deliver both in every frame) occurs when Cecil Gains (Forrest Whitaker) and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) attend a gala dinner at The White House as guests, invited by Nancy Regan (a weird-looking Jane Fonda).  Cecil has been on the opposite end of the tilted plate at every official dinner, but it is not until he is served that he understands how little power and respect the wait staff have. It’s the moment Uncle Tom meets Malcolm X in the spirit of African American survival, and the scene carries deep insight into how a person is led to seeing something that has been right under their nose for, in some cases, many years.


The Butler is worth seeing for scenes like this one, and a few stand out others, and worth sitting through the oddly laboured tale and the comic caricatures of presidents through history, that much as been made of in the swirl of reviews. The performances are truly odd, the strangest being John Cusack’s Nixon, but no one looks easy with their role and truckload of makeup. Jane Fonda really looks like she’s about to break out in leg warmers and demand we feel the burn, and Alan Rickman seems to have a hot poker up his ass, never for a moment looking comfortable playing Ronald Regan. James Marsden looks twelve years old – but perhaps that’s how Kennedy looked to the masses, he was young after all, and Minka Kelly’s almost silent Jackie Kennedy made me think of Marilyn Munroe every moment she was on-screen. It’s a huge shame, because the downright silly cartoonish quality of the white house performances steels power and more importantly screen time from the excellent performances connected with the black civil rights workers and the very interesting home life of Cecil Gains.

The Butler (2013) Forest Whitaker (Screengrab)

Lee Daniels can be touch and go. Prescious was overrated, but still strong and in my opinion The Paperboy was one of the worst films made in 2012, however both films are watchable if you think of them as classy junk rather than poorly made quality. The Butler takes another step in this film making style, at times almost parodying itself in its laboured cliché, and at times striking a rare deep chord as a film with a message. One rather long scene is devoted to Sydney Poiter and the film Guess Whose Coming to Dinner, with its role as change agent in America hotly discussed at Cecil’s dinner table.  It was during this scene I saw the connection between independent social criticism and the embracing of cliché. The Butler as a film is an amalgam of each side of its own story. Black Americans as Uncle Tom’s and Black Americans as rebel’s with a cause, and Daniels absorbs this into the films style. Daniels successfully uses epic Hollywood style manipulative techniques (splicing “real” footage of emotive historical events with recreations) along side his real strength (and how he got his start in Hollywood) character and female character in particular.  Daniels knows his strength is in casting (he cast Monsters Ball, which he also produced) and he directs women exceptionally well. The strength of all his films have been his female leads, and The Butler is no exception.


This idea of using / including a cliché against / for itself within a serious film is seen in Precious, with the juxtaposition of Gabourey Sidibe who reflects a brutal truth and the Paula Patton character (Precious’ teacher) as a schmultzy cliché.  Daniels does everything short of using a fuzzy “Doris-Day-lens” when he films Patton so that she literally becomes Hollywood fantasy built into the film. Daniels leaves this to subtlety, so I missed it at first, thinking instead that the Patton character was poorly written and false, but it was during The Butler that I noticed the combining of cliché and the real as a cinematic technique. Cecil Gaines represents a persistent unsettling truth about the position of “the black domestic” that is delt with powerfully in the film, and yet Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo) as Cecil’s revolutionary minded son, is a string of over-the-top Hollywood clichés of the “power-black” in film making as well as in American folklaw. Daniels pitting them against each other, including the clash of filming styles allows for a messy clanging chaotic representation that includes and reveals a black-sploitation Quentin Tarantino can only dream of conjuring up. At the same time, Daniels uses all the power that a laboured film can evoke to deliver his message.


Even if The Butler is famous for its odd cameos, Oprah Winfrey’s welcome return to the screen (she’s great in this, so large – she is amazingly large – she is bigger than the screen itself) and that gorgeous face (and powerful acting) of Forrest Whitaker, Daniels style as a film maker is starting to emerge with more clarity.  The film looks at times like some sort of James Cameron-esque cry for dollars, but it has an integrity and soul that Cameron couldn’t ever grasp, and it is in the successful (or maybe not quite successful just yet) combining of soul, schmultz and star-power that gives Daniels films some oomph.