It’s a bit ironic that studio scuffles forced Lee Daniels’ The Butler to topline the director’s name right in the title, since in practice it’s undoubtedly the movie least imprinted with his own unique combination of the lurid with the prestigious. Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, Shadowboxer and especially The Paperboy were all wildly inconsistent but frequently charged potboilers writ in deepest cursive.
But with The Butler (from here on out, the prefixed credit is implied), Daniels conducts himself in as refined a manner as he can muster, with only a few lapses in taste. In a way, his presentation holds up a mirror to the based-on-a-true story within the film, that of a White House butler who serves a long string of presidents during the course of the civil rights movement.
The film’s script (written by Mad Men actor Danny Strong) uses the milieu of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) to underline the generational conflict at the heart of all of the social upheavals of the ’60s. In other words, while Gaines, the former house servant, tries to play by the house rules in order to influence change, his Black Panther-joining son insists on ripping up the playbook.
Daniels lets the weight of the material ultimately overwhelm the apparatus, and the movie’s historical set-pieces (e.g. sit-ins, Freedom Riders, the line on “Soul Train”) eventually pile up a la Forrest Gump to such an extent that you start to wonder if the tale would’ve have been better served as a miniseries.
It feels both rushed and endless, and only once in a while does the central tension between the father and son fighting each other and only belatedly realizing they were fighting side-by-side actually assert itself — one memorable sequence juxtaposes Gaines setting places for a stiff-lipped state dinner while his son and his friends are being beaten for sitting-in at the “whites only” counter at a southern diner.
Daniels gets the most mileage whenever he draws clear parallels between the conditions of America for blacks prior to the civil rights movement and the circumstances facing black citizens in the here and now (sometimes in ways he likely didn’t even intend; he must have filmed the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down one of its key sections earlier this summer).
The irony is that Daniels’ own reputation doesn’t get the same benefit of the doubt, at least among the critical cognoscenti. Whereas many have castigated Precious for ostensibly dwelling in the gutter (and, it must be said, daring to shed light on the underrepresented underprivileged), many have rushed to clap Daniels on the back for playing the prestige game here.
In any case, the audience I saw the film with seemed to respond most toward the movie’s parade of stars portraying the presidents Gaines served, appearances that would be downright Oscar-baity were any of them onscreen for more than three or four minutes each. In that spirit, I offer ratings for each impersonation.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams)
PRO: That motor-mouthed Robin Williams should set the tone by portraying Eisenhower as Grandpa Zen Master, fretting away the hours in front of an artist’s canvas and painting nature’s delicacies while forcing Gov. Wallace to integrate his schools is the first sign that Daniels’ presidential gallery is intended to buck all expectations.
CON: Williams’ beady eyes scarcely suggest Eisenhower’s stony glare. Sam the Eagle from the Muppets would’ve been a better choice.
OVERALL GRADE: B-
John F. Kennedy (James Marsden)
PRO: The golden boy of the burgeoning youth movement and arguably the first true sex symbol to hold the position since Franklin “Rowr” Pierce, Kennedy left little doubt as to what the middle initial stood for. Perpetual frat boy Marsden looks the part …
CON: … but unfortunately doesn’t play it. None of Kennedy’s rapacious charm shows up in the performance, just lukewarm shouw-daire.
OVERALL GRADE: C+
Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber)
PRO: Schreiber provides the movie its campiest highlight while barking orders from the presidential loo and demanding Gaines fetch him some more prune juice, his two beagles curled up at his feet.
CON: Whatever reason Gaines had for selecting LBJ’s from his collection of presidentially gifted tie clips over everyone else’s when attending Obama’s inauguration at the film’s end (likely signing his name the Civil Rights Act) ended up on the cutting room floor … or flushed down the toilet.
OVERALL GRADE: B+
Richard Nixon (John Cusack)
PRO: Given Nixon’s omnipresence during the majority of Gaines’ employment at the White House, Cusack gets the meatiest role of anyone, and gets to slather on some old age makeup for his spectacular fall from grace. Even better is the scene depicting a then-vice president Nixon visiting the butlers in the White House kitchen and condescendingly tossing (not handing) them a few campaign buttons, embodying the future pariah’s chronic inability to connect with his constituents.
CON: The jowly vocal performance could’ve maybe been a little more purplish.
OVERALL GRADE: A
Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman)
PRO: Casting tony, tightly focused British actor Alan Rickman in the part of folksy, increasingly Alzheimer’s-afflicted Ronald Reagan is a beautiful piece of miscasting, one which gives credence to critic Steven Boone‘s argument that the film’s “ridiculous casting is all part of the joke,” that everyone in politics is playing a role.
CON: It’s still flagrant miscasting.
OVERALL GRADE: B
Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda)
PRO: As the woman many have argued was the real POTUS by proxy when Reagan’s mind got too far away from him, Fonda’s status as one of Hollywood’s most legendary lefties couldn’t be more ironically pronounced if she winked at the camera and proffered a roll of Mentos.
CON: Brechtian antics only go so far when all the main text allows Fonda to do is invite Gaines and his wife to a dinner party with dignitaries. Give this actress a spinoff!
OVERALL GRADE: C-
Oprah Winfrey (Oprah Winfrey)
PRO: She may be playing Gaines’ wife, but that’s just a smokescreen. Oprah’s return to the silver screen one decade and a half after Beloved imploded isn’t exactly the second coming, but her deft balance of the comedic, the dramatic and the tragic (sometimes within the very same scene, as when she puts on her angry lipstick and accuses her husband of being star-struck by Jackie Kennedy’s 128 pairs of shoes) marks what is easily the film’s best performance.
CON: Oprah’s technically not the president. Yet.
OVERALL GRADE: A+