Dare I admit it?
When I saw Lee Daniels’ The Butler, I was not impressed.
Yes, the audience applauded as the end credits rolled. And yes, I know that almost all of the mainstream critics have given it a good review. I know that Sasha Stone has been hyping it as a surefire Oscar contender. I know that, up until 12 Years A Slave introduced us all to an actress named Lupita Nyong’o, Oprah Winfrey was considered to be the front-runner for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
But it doesn’t matter. The Butler did little for me.
I also realize that the film ended with a title card that announced that what I had just watched was dedicated to the American civil rights movement. In many ways, that title card felt like emotional blackmail, implying that if you criticized The Butler than that meant you were also criticizing the brave, real life men and women who risked their lives to fight for equal rights.
However, when you put emotions and good intentions to the side, the fact of the matter is that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is not that good of a movie. One need only compare The Butler to some of the other films that were released this year that dealt with the African-American experience — films like 12 Years A Slave and Fruitvale Station — to see just how safe and uninspiring The Butler truly is.
The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker), the son sharecroppers (played by David Banner and Mariah Carey) in the deep south. After Cecil’s father is murdered by plantation owner Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), Cecil is raised and educated by the wealthy Annabeth Westdall (Vanessa Redgrave). Eventually, the teenaged Cecil leaves the plantation and ends up working in a hotel where he’s educated in how to be a master servant by the elderly Maynard (Clarence Williams III, who brings a quiet dignity to his role). Cecil eventually gets promoted to a hotel in Washington, D.C. It’s there that he meets and marries Gloria (Oprah Winfrey).
In 1957, Cecil is hired to work at the White House. Along with befriending two others butlers (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz), Cecil also gets the chance to observe history play out first hand. Starting with Dwight Eisenhower (played by Robin Williams) and ending with Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman, giving a performance that is incredibly bad), Cecil watches as President after President deals with the civil rights movement. Some presidents, like John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) are portrayed as being heroes while others, like Richard Nixon (John Cusack), are portrayed as being villains but all of them have the watchful eye of Cecil Gaines in common.
Meanwhile, at home, Gloria has a brief affair with Howard (played by Terrence Howard and really, you have to wonder what Cecil was thinking leaving his wife alone with anyone played by Terrence Howard) and Cecil’s oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), gets involved with the civil rights movement and grow increasingly estranged from his father.
The Butler actually starts out pretty well. There’s a lengthy sequence where Louis and a group of students are trained on how to conduct a sit-in that’s extremely compelling to watch. However, then John Cusack shows up wearing a big fake nose and the entire film starts to fall apart.
From a cinematic point of view, the film fails because it ultimately seems to be more dedicated to trotting out a parade of celebrity cameos to actually telling a compelling story. As is his usual style, Lee Daniels directs with a heavy hand and, as a result, the film is full of emotionally-charged scenes that fail to resonate for longer than a handful of minutes.
My main issue with The Butler is that the film literally contains no surprises. Nothing out of the ordinary happens and, at no point, is the audience actually challenged to consider the way they view history or race relations. Whereas films like Fruitvale Station and 12 Years A Slave truly challenge our assumptions, The Butler encourages us to pat ourselves on the back for being so enlightened. Every single frame of The Butler is specifically designed to fool us into thinking that we’re watching an important and challenging movie.
Because of a silly copyright lawsuit, the official title of The Butler is Lee Daniels’ The Butler. However, that title is very appropriate because The Butler is definitely a Lee Daniels film. Even if you didn’t know it beforehand, it would be easy to guess that the same man who directed Precious and The Paperboy also directed The Butler. As a director, Daniels specializes in making simplistic points in the most bombastic way possible. The results are films, like The Butler, that are more concerned with manipulating an audience than challenging an audience. When audiences applaud at the end of The Butler, they aren’t so much applauding the film as much as they are applauding themselves for having seen it.