Director: Lee Daniels / Screenplay: Danny Strong (based on Wil Haygood’s article) / Editing: Brian A. Kates & Joe Klotz / DP: Andrew Dunn / Music: Rodrigo Leão
Cast: Forest Whitaker / Mariah Carey / Vanessa Redgrave / Oprah Winfrey / David Oyelowo / Terrence Howard / Cuba Gooding Jr. / Lenny Kravitz / Robin Williams / John Cusack / Yaya DaCosta / James Marsden / Minka Kelly / Liv Schreiber / Nelsan Ellis / Alan Rickman / Jane Fonda
What the Butler Saw…
American director Lee Daniels broke through in 2009 with Precious, the inspirational story of an overweight, abused teenage girl in Eighties New York. Whilst pregnant with her second child, Precious is given another shot at life by a school principle, who sees her unfulfilled potential. A sobering, yet optimistic picture, I wasn’t surprised when it scooped two Oscars (Supporting Actress & Best Adapted Screenplay) along with a slew of prestigious awards from around the world.
Precious also marked Daniels as an emergent talent worth watching, but four years were to pass before he turned-in The Butler.
Watch enough movies and you’ll come to dread the phrase ‘Inspired by True Events’: four little words that, despite the best intentions of all concerned, can mask a multitude of sins. The ‘inspiration’ in this case, came from an article written for The Washington Post by journalist Wil Haygood, that looked at the remarkable life-story of a retired butler, who’d spent most of his career in-service, working at The White House; a run that saw Eugene Allen serve eight different US Presidents, from Eisenhower through to Reagan. Writing around the time of Obama’s first presidential election, Haygood considered America’s turbulence surrounding its civil rights legislation and filtered it through the microcosm of life in the White House; a place where most of the domestic staff have traditionally been Black-Americans.
Obama’s rise sparked an apparent reconciliation between black and white; a reconciliation that some believed – and hoped – would be permanent. I write this in 2018, two years into the divisive presidency of Donald Trump; an administration that has tacitly encouraged fringe groups such as the KKK to emerge from the shadows once more.
How things can change…
I digress. In the fervour of hope & optimism surrounding Obama’s victory, it’s perhaps inevitable that a film adaptation of Haygood’s article would be attempted. The unenviable job went to Danny Strong; an occasional character actor in such shows as 3rd Rock From the Sun, his ability to write features was untested, despite credit for a couple of TV-movies. Despite what must’ve been a difficult gig in ‘Butler, Strong would go on to write the last two (widely lauded) entries in The Hunger Games franchise and create a successful TV drama of his own in Empire thus validating his selection.
Strong wrote his initial draft (a loose, free-wheeling adaptation that changed Allen’s name to Cecil Gaines and didn’t stop there) before soliciting interest from producers. The project’s ultimate success was never really in-doubt, once the bandwagon began to roll. Yet, for all the hoopla, ‘Butler remained an independent production throughout, with finance arriving piecemeal from diverse sources, e.g. entrepreneurs in Pro-Sports Management & a Ukrainian billionaire resident in London. It seemed that all forty-one named producers carried a fierce determination to get the film made at all costs; something that occasionally happens within the close-knit production community whenever an ‘issue’ picture turns-up; The King’s Speech (2010) is another award-winning example, alas only gathering a paltry sixteen production credits…
With Daniels attached as Director, the job of casting began in-earnest. Either by default or design, Strong’s script called for a legion of day-players in key-roles, e.g. some of the presidents to hold the office during the thirty years or so of Allen’s career. The result was a bevy of ‘stunt castings’ that achieved little more than add credits to some already-illustrious filmographies, but we’ll get to these a little later.
So then, to the film and mere seconds-in, we’re confronted with a couple of African-Americans swinging from nooses. They’re clutching each other in a mortal embrace, while an American flag billows at frame-right, lit with uncanny glare against the night sky. This is Daniels Making An Impression and to Hell with any pretence at subtlety; an impression rammed-home when the following note is revealed: ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.’
Let me be clear: Dr. King’s message is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago, but to lead with it in such a crass manner, is disappointing from a director who, in his past work, had led me to believe he was capable of nuanced drama. Yet within the opening minute, he’s blaring his message with all the nuanced subtlety of a foghorn! I’m surprised he didn’t have Billy Holiday’s Strange Fruit as a sound-bed instead of a sonorous piano concerto. It all begs the question: why? Why is Daniels yelping his message like he’s tap-dancing on hot coals? Did he not trust the material to convey its truths with honest conviction? Or is the material so wafer-thin to begin with, that only by making a song-and-dance about it, can Daniels hope to distract our critical faculties? Well, let’s find out…
Anyway, we cut-to 1926 and a V.O. from Forest Whitaker’s adult Cecil Gaines: ‘The only thing I ever knew was cotton. It was hard work.’ Hard living too, as Cecil witnesses the callous murder of his father at the hands of the plantation’s owner. As a result, he’s taken-in as a ‘house-boy’ into the mansion, dressed in fine livery and grows into a young man trained in the arts of domesticated servitude under the eye of the second star to have graced the screen up to that point: Vanessa Redgrave. She plays the owner’s mother; a straight-laced harridan, who takes the boy on as some form of penance to offset the work of her murdering son…
The first unsung celebrity? Mariah Carey plays Cecil’s distraught mother, with a degree of vulnerability & humility I found plausible. So how disappointed do you think I was, on learning that this entire episode was entirely Crow’s invention; a cheap tactic intended to load the emotional dice?
Via a ‘hard-luck-montage’ that could’ve been lifted from a production on The Hallmark Channel, in which young Cecil sleeps in ditches and walks empty railroad tracks, he ends-up smashing the window of a hotel restaurant to steal a cake displayed within. His punishment? To be taken on by its manager and shown the hotel trade. Before he knows it, the poor wretch is shaking Martinis and buffing patent brogues to a gleam, yet it’s ALL fantasy!
In the blink of an eye, we arrive in 1957. From this point on, Cecil’s portrayal is firmly under Whitaker’s control, as he works as a butler at the prestigious Excelsior hotel in D.C.. I admire the mannered control Whitaker lends to Cecil, conjuring someone possessed of a dignity and self-control honed after many years working as an experienced butler. It’s a job disdained by most casual observers, but for those who do it well – those of the old school – I’d imagine there’s satisfaction to be gained from a job well-done. In such case, Whitaker’s telegraphing Cecil’s reward with honesty.
Matching him blow-for-blow, line-for-line in the picture is Oprah Winfrey as Gloria, his wife. A rare talent, Winfrey’s return to acting after many years in the role of ‘media-mogul’, is a treat to behold, as she takes Gloria through a gamut of emotions, as the film unpacks plot in its own stately pace.
Stately? Oh, yes. By the time Cecil gets hired at the WH, we’re only twenty-two minutes-in, yet it felt like forty, so leaden & treacly has pacing been to this point. Enter his amiable colleagues in the form of Carter Wilson (the always sparky Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Holloway (that’ll be Lenny Kravitz, though minus jewellery & shades, you’d be pushed to recognise him). Yet even their locker-room banter isn’t given much airtime, before we’re facing a blitzkrieg of stellar cameos.
The onslaught begins with none-other than Robin Williams as Eisenhower. I can’t say if Williams pulled off his impersonation, but what I can say with certainty, is that this is where Strong begins shamelessly channeling Bob Zemeckis’ classic Forrest Gump. Only Gump could get away with the often-implausible intermeshing between himself & key moments in the late 20th Century American history because it was a fantasy – a fable.
The Butler is not. It purports to be ‘inspired by true events’, so what to make of the film’s habit of making Cecil a witness to key exchanges between actors on the world’s stage? Unsatisfied with overhearing Ike talk about calling-out the National Guard to protect African-Americans in the South, Daniels skips-through James Marsden’s JFK in the time it takes to make a mug of tea, before landing in the court of President Johnson, circa 1964, played as a brutal character-study by Liev Schreiber. There’s a moment to catch our breath, before John Cusack turns-up the parody-dial with his Nixon. To round things off, we get the sorely-missed Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan & Jane Fonda as Nancy. Strong’s script was criticised over its handling of Reagan’s attitude on-race, but I can’t fault either actor; both Rickman & Fonda were giving their all here.
Running throughout the film, is a fractious relationship between Cecil and his eldest son Louis, played by Daniel Oyelowo with a wavering commitment that, at-times, made me think he’d twigged the film’s overwrought worthiness and was treating it accordingly.
Beginning as a student at Fisk University, Louis spends the whole film embroiled in the nascent ‘black power’ movement, from where he graduates in ‘The Freedom Riders’, ‘The Black Panthers’ and, ultimately, winds-up as a protestor against South African apartheid. The inevitable reconciliation of father & son is a LONG time coming and doesn’t overstay its welcome: which is just as well. In Louis, Stone created a character intended to be the polar opposite of his staid father, yet Louis does nothing to endear himself or build bridges. Even when his (fictitious) brother is killed in ‘Nam, he remains distant for no apparent reason other than plot-demands. The (real) life of Eugene Allen was noted for its uneventfulness, despite his proximity to power, but a compelling screenplay that wouldn’t make. That’s why Strong had to go to extraordinary lengths to add drama and GRAVITAS.
I can see why, as the resulting hodgepodge lends a contrasting tone to Cecil’s traditional values. Yet on three separate occasions, Daniels employs cross-cutting between shots of Cecil just Doing His Job and Louis being a tyke, with such forehead-slapping predictability, it’s as if he’d either ran out of narrative tricks or was doing it deliberately to appease his cast-of-a-thousand producers… Which makes me think even Strong’s inflated life was too thin to run without stabilisers.
The film that emerges then, is bloated & unfocused. Uncertain of what it wants to say – and how it wants to say it – it ends-up taking us on a long-haul flight across America’s post-war struggles for equality, treating key moments as mere glimpses down to the flyover states of history. Yet the American experience deserves more than a mere overflight: it deserves a lengthy road-trip to shine a light on its murky past.
Something like an HBO mini-series would afford the granularity & context that a vanity project like this can never deliver, no matter how many names grace the poster. If you want to see how this set-up should work, do yourself a favour and tuck into a hearty portion of ‘Gump. Otherwise let this under-filled, overcooked travesty take its rightful place as an also-ran in movie history.
Cecil? Give me some of that goddamn prune juice!