Lee Daniels’ film about the civil rights movement as seen through the eyes of a White House butler was in trouble well before it opened. The filmmakers, which include thirty-nine various forms of producer, ran afoul of Warner Brothers in a spat over the title. Arcane and somewhat illegal MPAA bylaws (titles cannot legally be copyrighted) state that MPAA signatories — i.e. studios — cannot use the exact same title. Warners owns the rights to an obscure silent film of the same name and gave distributor Harvey Weinstein a hard time, barring release of the film just six weeks prior to scheduled opening, which means that trailers and key art for the posters were already in place.
Everyone on Daniels’ side threw his or her weight behind the battle, but Warners chief Kevin Tsujihara proved obdurate. The film’s weightiest star, Oprah Winfrey, who recently eviscerated a shopkeeper in Switzerland for refusing to show her a $38,000-dollar handbag, had her voluble say, of course, and Daniels even penned an emotional open letter to the studio chief (see link above). In the end, the MPAA ruled that the official title could be Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
I’m sure Daniels didn’t object to this. A director’s name before a title usually connotes the highest level of auteurship on a film. Many of Fellini’s films have his name before the title; such was the power of his brand that it was the selling point. Sadly, Daniels is far from the kind of filmmaker who deserves this honor, and that is made abundantly clear by this sham biopic that is so formulaic, pedantic and didactic — and every other negative “ic” in the dictionary — that it would have been passed over by the Lifetime Channel if it didn’t star half of Hollywood’s African-American elite.
I don’t remember being so furious with a movie — although heavily fictionalized, the story is so ripe with potential that Daniels’ treatment of it represents the biggest missed opportunity since Betamax lost out to VHS. This is a shame because I was impressed with the director’s Oscar-winning Precious. Now I’m beginning to suspect that was a fluke, a happy accident of variables that aligned themselves fortuitously for a one-off event: Gabourney Sidibe’s mesmerizing inscrutability in the face of horrific circumstances; the clever casting of Mo’Nique and Mariah Carey without a trace of diva, not even makeup; naturalistic, guerilla-style cinematography cut together with stylish, simple editing.
Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, the eponymous butler born on a cotton plantation in the Deep South whose father is shot by the white boss (Alex Pettyfer) after the father limply stands up to him for habitually raping Cecil’s mother (Mariah Carey). Out of remorse, the dowager of the plantation (Vanessa Redgrave) brings young Cecil into the house and trains him to serve. Fearing that he will evetually meet his father’s fate at the hands of the rapist psycho-boss, Cecil leaves and makes his way to Washington, D.C. via North Carolina. While working at a luxury hotel, he’s discovered by the head of White House operations and goes on to serve every president from Truman through Reagan. He marries a despicable alcoholic named Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), who of course fully redeems herself in an unlikely character arc worthy of a repentant guest on that megastar’s show. They have two children and through them witness the birth of the civil rights movement and its struggles up until the election of Obama. The fact that very little of this happened to the real person on whom this is based, Eugene Allen, makes the whole movie even more preposterous than Django Unchained, or perhaps more aptly Forrest Gump — there are many people who will see this who have not read the production notes and will think it actually happened.
The first major issue is the narrator. This instantly weighs the film down like sodden woolen clothes on a drowning man — Whitaker narrating one of his social-awareness documentaries has more panache and dramatic flare. It’s completely unnecessary and flays any lyricism right off the story. Then you get pepper sprayed with uninspired lines like, “It’s a white man’s world, we’re just living in it.” I’d have to watch it to be sure, but I’m fairly certain there is not one scene in the entire first act that doesn’t refer to racism and the black man’s struggle. It’s overkill that saps most of power from this most powerful of topics.
I refer you to the segment in Lady Sings the Blues, the superlative Billie Holliday biopic starring Diana Ross, in which Holliday gets the inspiration for her song “Strange Fruit” after seeing a lynching while on tour in the South. That scene will haunt me the rest of my life — considering that I saw it when I was about twelve, it already has. My point is it was a single, momentous sequence. Nothing else was needed. In The Butler you are so relentlessly clobbered by this wiffle bat of triteness that you quickly become desensitized. It’s crap filmmaking because these are nothing more than reenacted scenes from a docudrama with expensive sets and actors.
The film has some finer moments, particularly after Mr. Gaines goes to Washington and the second act kicks in. The sequence that shows a White House state dinner juxtaposed with a civil rights sit-in at the lunch counter of a Woolworth’s typifies Daniels’ on-the-nose wiffle batting, but it is well done. There are other touches here and there, but they are merely touches that amount to nothing more than a row of dioramas in the Smithsonian.
There is some inventive casting, which seems to be Daniels’ strongest talent, notably: John Cusack as Nixon (just brilliant); Lenny Kravitz, continuing his climb of Mount Hollywood, as another butler; Liev Schreiber as the constipated Lyndon Johnson; Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan (!!!!); Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Oprah acquits herself nicely, almost whimsically at times, but that elusive chemistry isn’t there with Forest Whitaker. Having said that, Whitaker is such a lone-wolf presence on screen with that dour mouth and droopy left eye that I’m not certain he can have chemistry with anyone. And were marriages back in those days meant to have all of those fantastical elements that we delude ourselves into thinking they should have today?
My one nod to a script that isn’t worthy of being printed on the tissues of a therapist’s office is that the ending has good punch.
Here is the biggest missed opportunity, particularly for Winfrey and her struggling network: This could have been one of the most engaging, long-running scripted TV series ever. With the scramble for quality TV content, I cannot believe nobody saw this. It would have been an American Downton Abbey meets The West Wing carried forward by gripping historical events as seen by these engrossing real-life characters over six decades. Perhaps it’s not too late. Is the set for The Butler still around? Someone please slap some sense into Oprah, but careful not to do it with a crocodile handbag.