Craig's First Take: "The Butler"

Photo Credit: Photo by Anne Marie Fox – © 2013 Butler Films, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

For those that need clarification, Lee Daniels is not the name of the butler in the movie “Lee Daniel’s The Butler”. Calling it that was the result of a silly spat between this films production company and an older Warner Brothers film also called “The Butler” that no one is even thinking about anymore. Lee Daniels is what some might call a filmmaker, others a sensationalist. He’s the man behind last year’s “The Paperboy”, where he got Nicole Kidman to give Zach Efron a golden shower.

“The Butler” sees him moving away from a more perverse subject matter but he’s still a filmmaker who likes to stretch in order to get a reaction. This film is inspired by the life of Eugene Allen, who served in the White House as pantry man and butler soon after for 34 years under 8 presidents. Will Haygood covered him for a story in a 2008 Washington Post article, which writer Danny Strong (HBO’s “Recount” and “Game Change”) and Daniels have finagled with mixed results.

Eugene’s name has been changed to Cecil Gaines, the son of cotton pickers in the 1920’s whose life is changed when his mother is raped, his father killed, and he is promoted to work in the house. He runs away as a teenager, working in hotels until he catches the eye of the White House, starting work there in the 50’s. Gaines (played by a mild-mannered Forest Whitaker as an adult) is a model employee, which makes his wife Gloria (Oprah) proud but son Louis (David Oyelowo, an angry, steadfast scene stealer) bristle at his father trying to make it in a white society. So he sets on his own path, first attending a college in the south where he joins a peaceful resistance group and then only getting more into the changing tide of boycotts and protests as the 60’s and 70’s wear on.

The times are well documented here, where a black man trying to make it in a white society was told to look “non-threatening” and being apolitical wouldn’t hurt either. There’s also frightening, horribly ugly scenes of racial violence as well as that revolutionary air among young people that their parents just didn’t get. The scenes between Cecil and Louis are fantastic but I’m not sure I understand the approach here.

The movie is dedicated to those who fought for civil rights, except Cecil spends much of the film with no agenda whatsoever. In fact, he’s critical of and cuts his son off for what he’s doing. He seems to have a change of heart in the last act, but even then it’s like Daniel’s is minimizing his efforts as a family man and provider because he didn’t spend his life as a fighter. Not only that but his dealings with the presidents are only seen from the angle of him being in the room at the same moment they seem to be discussing civil rights legislation.

As the presidents, the actors mostly are on screen for a couple minutes and then disappear. The movie tries to condense so much history that you never get a good feel for anyone. Eisenhower (Robin Williams, looking more like his character from “One Hour Photo”) grapples with Brown vs. Board of Ed, Nixon (John Cusack, wearing no make-up and barely sounded like him) personally solicits the black wait staff of the White House to tell their friends to vote Nixon, Kennedy (a decently cast James Marsden) is seen as a progressive, Liev Schreiber is kinda fun as Lyndon Johnson, and the Reagans (a miscast Alan Rickman, perfect Jane Fonda) invite Cecil to a State dinner. It’s also nice to see Cuba Gooding Jr. here, playing a dirty-joke telling head butler.

“The Butler” is kind of a toss-up. As history it looks and is interesting, if a little condensed, but mostly I don’t know what the movie is trying to say about Cecil, and considering it’s called “The Butler”, and not “Civil Rights From the 50’s to the 80’s”, that seems like a pretty big misstep.