Thursday, September 12, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013)

The history of the United States is a tumultuous one. The stark truth is that from the very outset of this country's independence (and, actually, before that), America has been perched on the verge of complete social upheaval, even though those in power would like you to believe otherwise. We are a nation founded on the principles of equality (though obviously that term is interpreted in many ways) and independence, and forces of change are constantly resisting forces of conservatism. Eventually, something breaks: a movement is born, it's momentum becomes undeniable, resistance to the movement pushes back, violence erupts, and then it's quelled, with the status quo altered, if only marginally. And then the cycle repeats itself.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that Lee Daniels' The Butler takes up a herculean task: portraying one of the most tumultuous periods in American history - the post-WWII era through today - through the eyes of one man who was never directly involved with any of it. These kinds of "greatest hits" films are difficult to pull off, as many biopics over the years can attest to. The most obvious point of comparison for The Butler is Forrest Gump, that evergreen staple of TNT reruns. That latter film mostly succeeds on the strength of it's cast and a full commitment to it's premise, as well as more of a focus on Forrest's personal struggle rather than his involvement in the events he haphazardly wanders into.

The Butler, however, tries to put it's protagonist, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), into the context of the sea change that was sweeping the country. Or, at the very least, give him a tangible connection to those events outside of his race. Inspired by a true story, the film begins by showing young Cecil working alongside is family as sharecroppers in the American South, before beginning a journey that eventually takes him to being a butler in the White House. As he serves under a number of presidents, his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey, in a rare acting gig) struggles with addiction and loneliness, his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes increasingly involved in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, while youngest son Isaac just wants to goof off (minor spoiler: he'll eventually serve in Vietnam).

The cardinal sin that Danny Strong's (yes, Jonathan from Buffy!) script makes is that it breezes us through over 70 years of American history without giving us much sense of what it means. As stated above, the narrative only briefly touches on any given event before scuttling off to the next one, never really allowing it to make an impact on the audience. The film trusts audiences to have a basic knowledge of 20th century American history, but it never goes beyond that very surface knowledge. Only when it directly brushes up against Louis - the only one of the Gaines' who throws himself into the chaos that's unfolding - does history seem to actually matter in the film.

Of course, this is a problem that the film was doomed to have, given that Cecil is, both by nature and occupation, a passive individual. His job requires him to be invisible, for "the room to feel empty" when he's in it. It's not a particularly glorious role to play, but Whitaker plays it masterfully, grasping the subtext fully and making Cecil a beautifully realized character. Cecil's struggle is deeply internalized: he's apolitical and unable to discuss what he witnesses on the job, and therefore not able to outwardly express himself. But Whitaker does a fantastic job of letting every silent glance or stoic pose speak volumes about what's going on inside without specifying what that exactly is. It's a truly brilliant performance.

This isn't necessarily surprising, though, considering that Lee Daniels is behind the camera. Daniels has built a reputation for himself as a director who draws out fantastic performances from his actors ever since his 2009 breakthrough Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire. Though The Butler isn't as gonzo as his previous features, there's still no denying that this is a Daniels film. He gives everything that's happening on screen an electric energy, keeping the attention on his players without too many distractions. As such, there are a number of great performances here apart from Whitaker's. For one, Winfrey is absolutely deserving of her Oscar talk: even though Gloria is woefully underwritten and underutilized, Winfrey is never less than riveting, making the most of her role and finding unexpected depth in her minimal screentime. Similarly, Cuba Gooding Jr. has a modest role as Carter, a randy fellow butler in the White House who becomes a close friend of the Gaines, but shows off a warmth and subtlety that has been missing from much of his career. Then there's Oyelowo, who's been the standout in a number of recent films (Red Tails, Middle of Nowhere), deliver yet another fine performance, capturing Louis' idealistic evolution while reconciling his relationship with his father.

Unfortunately, the cast isn't uniformly strong. Namely, the other cardinal sin that the film commits is that it fills the roles of the presidents with an increasing number of distracting celebrity cameos: Robin Williams as Eisenhower, Liev Schriber as LBJ, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, and, perhaps worst of all, John Cusack as Nixon. It goes beyond Cusack's lack of resemblance of jowly Tricky Dick; there's never a moment when he's on screen when it doesn't feel like "here's John Cusack trying his best Nixon impression." The only one of these cameos that really succeeds is James Marsden as Kennedy; he believably embodies the doomed president, even if his accent is shaky at times.

It's pointless to speculate upon how The Butler could have been better; a version where we only see Cecil's relationship with a single president at a single event is never going to exist, after all. However, the film as is is a worthwhile endeavor. The kerfuffle over the title turned out to be indicative of the final product: this is Lee Daniels' The Butler, a film that, like most of his oeuvre, is messy, maddening, brilliant in places, and wholly enjoyable. B

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