Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler

By Lee Daniels

            It is hard to resist the feeling that with Lee Daniels' The Butler, Lee Daniels is daring his audience to criticize his work.  The film so unabashedly and lackadaisically preaches to the choir as a celebration of civil rights that it seems Daniels was simply banking on the fact that he could finger anyone pointing out its glaring flaws as a bigot.  “What, you didn’t like The Butler?  What are you, racist or something?”
            But here is the thing: throughout the film, Daniels seems bored with his material, caring more about economically progressing the film’s timeline than much else.  We are rarely given any time to process the subject matter, though this is perhaps a blessing considering the film’s matter-of-fact arguments.  Rather than provide a thoughtful contemplation of the civil rights movement and its far-reaching socioeconomic impact, Daniels provides a cursory and simplified history filled with tired character types and broad moral declarations.  Dispassionately carrying out Danny Strong’s amateurish script, which seems to have been researched using nothing but a poorly written 8th grade history textbook, the film relies heavily on musical cues and pandering voiceover commentary to tell its story.  With many aspects of the film being underdeveloped, such cinematic tools fall flat and far too often feel forced.
            These lazy efforts from Daniels to instruct his audience how to feel and think quickly become tedious.  One the one hand, he seems to rely on the fact that he is preaching to the choir to gain the audience’s sympathy, but on the other, he directs the film in a sententious way that communicates he is presenting groundbreaking ideas.  Either way, it feels condescending and obnoxiously self-important.

** out of ****
            More than anything else, The Butler is contrived.  And in its contrivance, it is lazy.  Lee Daniels has provided a thoughtless film that is somehow boring while plowing through its timeline at a cut-rate pace.  Based on a true story, The Butler follows the life of Cecil Gaines, a black man who served eight presidents in the White House (real life name Eugene Allen).  It attempts to parallel and contrast Cecil’s life and work with the plight of his son, a young man who is strongly involved in the changing civil rights movement.  To Louis, Cecil is an Uncle Tom, but to Cecil, Louis is a delinquent law-breaker.
Louis, arrested again.
            There are several scenes, played for tension and emotion, in which Cecil struggles at work with his position, intercut with scenes of the son, Louis, in famous civil rights moments (including being at the very hotel of the assassination of MLK, Jr.!).  The coincidences just don’t add up, and the themes lack nuance, so Daniels’s cookie-cutter thesis ends up being poorly drawn and argued.  Forest Whitaker tries his hardest here, and is joined by a lot of other actors who are doing their best, but the material is just too badly written to be believable.  Even Oprah is pretty good in a part that is unnecessary and almost ridiculous, and that is coming from a person who doesn’t like Oprah at all.  You’re right, David - it does seem like Daniels is daring his audience to take issue with his work.  The Butler is a pandering and lazy movie that tries to skate on its message.

* ½ out of ****

            With films like this, you can sense that the filmmakers were sniffing for Oscar gold in their conception of the film.  The film just has that sense of self-importance about it.  Rather than thoughtfully consider the motivations and relational dynamics of the characters, this film relies on cardboard-deep personalities to act out stiff melodrama, paying lip-service to its themes.  It is the kind of movie that will leave many people feeling good about themselves for watching it, but will in the end do little to challenge anyone.  In a climate of persistent racial tension, I struggle to see what Daniels hoped to achieve.

Look, it's Lyla!  And she's first lady.
            Daniels is clearly trying to say something about race – but he makes it so reductive that it is almost harmful.  Take for example the end *SPOILERS* which seems to portray the election of Barack Obama as the ultimate expression of how far we’ve come as a nation in terms of race.  And while it was a historic moment and certainly does exhibit that the nation has taken a lot of positive steps forward, there are still monumental problems in America’s race relations.  Everything isn’t better just because we elected a black president and Cecil got a raise, and we have a lot of difficult, complex work ahead of us.

            I had the same uncomfortable feeling in the climactic moments involving Obama’s election.  This kind of uninhibited celebration is disconcerting, to say the least, especially coming from a black filmmaker.  I think this kind of oversimplification is not only dangerous because it makes people think that there is no need to make any more strides for equality in this country, but because simple answers that cut out the messy realities of the issues only further conflict in American politics.  You get the sense that Daniels is furthering a tendency to suppress voices that want to discuss the complexities of this topic, making anyone who wants to find real solutions into an enemy.  Daniels is allowed an opinion, and in this case it is safe enough that few will disapprove, but it is the fact that he states it without really arguing it that is disappointing.
            I think the development of Cecil’s character is a good example of how Daniels suppresses complexity.  *SPOILERS*  The entire film develops Cecil as a goodly rule-follower and does a good enough job presenting his disapproval with his son Louis.  Yet, late in the film, with little explanation, he changes his mind about civil rights protests and spends the last half hour of the movie reconciling to his son and preaching the virtues of the political demonstrations he spent the entire film opposing.  As viewers, we are supposed to applaud this change, but any thoughtful viewer is left asking, “What in the world created such an abrupt shift?”

            You’re right – it was extremely abrupt.  Daniels attempted to show that Cecil was tired and downtrodden, but it was so sudden a shift that it wasn’t very palatable.
In a completely unnecessary scene.
            Also abrupt were the many shifts in Oprah Winfrey’s character, Gloria Gaines.  While I understand the inclusion of her character – she is Cecil’s wife – the family drama was shoehorned in.  It’s fine to be both a film about race and a family drama, but to have both notched to 11 on the melodrama scale just serves to wipe each other out.  Gloria goes from being a lovely woman to an alcoholic cheater to on the wagon to off the wagon each time we see her.  There is no gradual change, and although Oprah sells the heck out of it, the character just constantly feels odd.   The scenes of the home life of Cecil vary in tone significantly to his work life, and they never work together to form a whole.

            Couldn’t agree more – her character felt completely out of left field and did nothing to contribute to the film’s larger themes.  As a filmmaker, he seems to think that simply inserting scenes of infidelity or alcoholism is profound, but someone needs to tell him that to make an impact, he must comment on these issues rather than simply showing them.
            You could say much of the same for Cecil’s youngest son Charlie who, due to the film’s lacking sense of time progression, startlingly appears looking ten years older without warning and stands in moral opposition to his older brother.  Yet, there is a goodly amount of fun in Elijah Kelley’s limited role here, as his comedic timing is pretty great, providing my favorite moments of the entire film.  I wish I could say the same for Cuba Gooding, Jr. – whose obscene comic sensibility and standard Cuba Gooding, Jr. delivery feel out of place.

And Mariah Carey, in the film for about 2 minutes.
            How about the long string of stunt casting for each of the presidents?  We have Alan Rickman as Reagan, James Marsden as JFK, John Cusack as Nixon, and Robin Williams as Eisenhower.  Some of them, like Marsden, work very well, but some are just awkward and laughable, like Cusack, whose Nixon is a depressing, tone-deaf sad-sack.  In general, Daniels paints a broad political stroke - each of the Democrat presidents is wonderful, while each Republican is evil.  It’s very odd and naïve to trivialize politics that way, as Daniels attempts to simplify something as complex and problematic as the political system.
           Meanwhile, Cecil’s son is attending lectures by Malcolm X, getting a first-hand speech from MLK, Jr., and is one of the very first in the Black Panther movement.  It’s all so over-the-top and contrived, I found myself occasionally laughing out loud.    Not to mention the completely unnecessary role for Terrence Howard that never goes anywhere except to mention that Oprah is having an affair – she’s falling apart!

            It is all so ridiculous.  And yet, the most ridiculous thing about the whole movie to me is that Lee Daniels had the ego to make sure every time you saw the film’s title, it was associated with his name.  The film is not The Butler, but Lee Daniels’ The Butler.  With his film looking and feeling like a Lifetime special apart from the occasional fuzzy glow of overexposed photography, what makes him think he should tout himself as an auteur?

            This being my first Lee Daniels film, I don’t think I can accurately answer your question, but he certainly does have some name recognition at this point.  You wonder how long he can ride the coattails of his success with 2009’s Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire before people stop paying him much attention.

Two-as-One Rating: *¾ out of ****


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