Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)

A couple of years ago, David Edelstein reviewed Lee Daniels’ film Precious. He wrote astutely about that film’s shortcomings, although his review was largely positive. Edelstein was savaged by readers who were outraged that he would dare criticize a film about an overweight, abused, illiterate teen. I didn’t see Edelstein’s thesis challenged, but the vicious response must have struck a nerve – since then his writing has been mostly toothless and uninteresting. I was reminded of this last night after seeing Lee Daniels’ The Butler (actual four-word title, thanks to some lawyers with retainers to justify). My companion became angry as we discussed the movie – to him, the subject matter was inviolable, and any negative comments I made about the filmmaking were received as rejection of his personal values.

With that in mind, I carefully state that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is half of a good movie. I also suggest that subject matter as important as the Civil Rights Movement deserves a great movie, and the task of an arts critic is to encourage and champion the best possible work. It’s possible that Lee Daniels heard only positive comments about Precious, and his Butler isn’t as good as it might have been partly for that reason. (I know he lost the legal fight to call the movie what he wanted, but including his own name in the revision is rare hubris. It might have been called Lee Daniels’ Butler, which would have demonstrated some humor, or Lee Daniels’ Really Important Movie, to reflect his aspiration.)

Daniels contructs the movie like a teacher might: he tells us what he’s going to show, he shows, then he tells us what he’s shown (often telling again and again). Early in the film we see two dead black men, hanging from ropes. A voiceover tells us that these men were heroes. Then we’re shown and told again. Lesson after Lesson is delivered in needless voiceover, as if Daniels wanted to be absolutely sure nobody misses his points (in the words of several critics, it feels like an after-school special.) He puts words in the mouth of Martin Luther King Jr. to make the point that a hardworking domestic (butler) is no less a civil rights activist than a Freedom Rider – he doesn’t trust the audience to get the message (or maybe he doubts his ability to deliver it.) Contrast that with Tony Kushner’s amazing libretto for Caroline, or Change. Kushner gets the same message across but he does it in a way that allows the audience to discover it even as his characters do – the revelation packs an authentic wallop that Daniels largely fails to wring out of his own material.

Daniels’ most disatrous misstep is to cast several historical figures (in addition to MLK, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan, Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan) with well-known actors, which is absolutely distracting – like the cheap wax museum next door to Madame Tussauds that hopes to fleece a few bucks from less observant tourists. Presidents Ford and Carter are spared bad impersonations – we only see them on TV screens. Why not keep the focus on the ostensible lead character (Lee Daniels’ Butler) and maintain that indirect approach throughout? The only reason I can think of is that Daniels and his screenwriter really wanted those Presidents to keep speaking their contrived Message, lest we miss the point of the historical record.

Early in his career, Forest Whitaker played a small but crucial role in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money. He was electrifying – the film deflated a bit after his scene. He won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in The Last King of Scotland. I mention those by way of apologizing for this: I didn’t buy him as a butler for one second in this film. It’s difficult to believe that his character would advance as far as he did with the shambling, lingering manner Whitaker employs here. On the other hand, Oprah Winfrey gives a major star performance (she will receive many nominations and awards for this role.) She plays without vanity, recalling her great debut in Spielberg’s The Color Purple and adding layers that don’t seem hinted at in the screenplay. Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. are better foils for Winfrey than Whitaker is – we never understand what draws her to this temperate butler, although she plays it as far as she can.

Winfrey is allowed the only sparks of anger and real humanity in the movie, which points to a weakness in most entertainments concerned with the American civil rights movement. Daniels and other artists are careful to portray their oppressed subjects as almost entirely good, and always oppressed by vicious opposition. Whitaker’s butler is practically a saint, and one of his sons volunteers as a soldier in Vietnam while another is repeatedly arrested for taking part in peaceful protests; he earns a master’s degree and becomes a senator. Although this points to certain elements of historical truth, it undermines the essential morality of civil rights: people are entitled to basic freedoms not because they are good, but because they are human beings.

The best sequences in The Butler (enough with the prefix, have the lawyers call me) are the ones that approach surreality. A bus full of protesting college students attacked by a hooded mob is appropriately disorienting. A midnight drive through streets filled with rioters is bleached of almost all color, and makes one wonder how much more powerful the entire film might have been, had it been shown entirely in black and white. There is a nicely edited montage of a lunch counter protest juxtaposed against preparations for a White House state dinner. I would have preferred more of these, without the voiceover commentary telling me how to feel.

My companion felt that the filmmakers had a responsibility to be as explicit with their themes as possible – he lived through the era, and wanted the reminder. Moreover, he feels that an entire generation of Americans has lost touch with the struggles and sacrifices that shaped the Civil Rights movement, and they need to be educated. I can’t entirely disagree; I don’t know that a more nuanced portrayal would communicate with a wider audience than The Butler is reaching. It could be a better film, but maybe the filmmakers chose a path better suited to their mission.