“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (2013) is Rather Uninspired


The Butler Poster

There are a lot of reasons “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” (2013) fails, the most obvious being that Lee Daniels, who directed the movie, thought it proper to cast widely recognizable actors as former presidents although they have little resemblance to the presidents they are portraying.  I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how Robin Williams was even screen tested for the role of Dwight Eisenhower, much less actually given the role.

But the film fails at a more fundamental level.  The movie, loosely based on a true story, is told from the perspective of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a man who spent most of his working life as a black butler at the White House during eight presidencies from Dwight Eisenhower’s to Ronald Reagan’s.  Yet the film tells almost nothing interesting about the man himself.  What was it like working in the White House as a black man?  What was it like to be in the presence of central decision-making that led to the chaos of Vietnam War and the battle for civil rights?  The movie is called “The Butler.”  Why not explore what the butler, Cecil Gaines, heard, observed and felt while getting a first-hand look that very few others got to see: presidents with widely different personalities, from Eisenhower (a president with no prior political experience) to Richard Nixon (a politically astute president who resigned in disgrace) dealing with perhaps the most tumultuous time in American history.

The film shows very little interest in all these fascinating questions, and instead grounds the story arc on the Civil Rights movement told from the perspective of his relationship with his oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), which becomes estranged after Louis goes to the south to attend a historically black college to participate in the civil rights movement.

The problem with this focus is that what happened in the South during the 50s, 60s and 70s have already been covered repeatedly by Hollywood, often in very good films.  In once again telling the stories about the sit-ins, the KKK, and Malcolm X, Daniels needed to break new ground.  What we–and by “we” I mean the Americans who did not live through the period–need now is depth, not breadth. We need either a fresh perspective that brings new meaning to the events or personal connection that makes these events associable to those who didn’t experience them.

And in that light, “Forrest Gump” (1994), this movie isn’t.  Throughout the film, Cecil Gaines is in Washington, D.C., removed from the civil rights movement unfolding in the Deep South, and never once visits his son who is there.  The movie relies on Louis to carry the entire narrative forward, which makes one wonder what the purpose of telling the story from the perspective of Cecil Gaines is.

The film didn’t have to be like this.  An important theme of this movie is the conflict between Cecil and Louis, between a man who provided a safe environment for his family in the nation’s capital and a son who voluntarily went to experience the injustice that his father fled.  There could have been something deep and complex about this conflict.  Cecil grew up on a cotton farm owned by white people, one of whom raped his mother and shot his father.  Becoming a butler at the White House, owning his own home, and being able to send his child to college was beyond what he could have imagined growing up in the South back then.  That he didn’t want his son to experience what he had to grow up with–and that his son could and would want to experience it because of a higher calling–was in actuality sign of slow, but gradual progress.  Cecil’s conflict with his son could have been framed as resulting, not from the failure to understand his son, but from understanding his son all too well.

If the relationship between the real-life Cecil and his son were really strained as depicted in the movie, I doubt it would have been so easily repaired as the film makes us believe.  And because I never bought into the relationship that the film invests so much in, I really didn’t care for the happy ending that seemed all too hackneyed and simplistic.

The performances by the always-strong Forest Whitaker and the surprisingly-strong Oprah Winfrey  as Cecil’s wife are wasted in this uninspired picture, although former Academy Award-winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. finally gives a performance as Cecil’s colleague and friend, Carter Wilson, that doesn’t get remembered for all the wrong reasons.

No doubt Lee Daniels, who produced the film in addition to directing it, thought this movie to be sufficiently epical to attach his name to the title.  It isn’t, which makes the title, which already seems like a misnomer, also awfully haughty.


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