dir. Lee Daniels
Lee Daniels’ Lee Daniels’ The Butler has dealt with a range of battles. For starters, a legal battle was fought over the movie's title between its own distributor and another major studio asserting ownership of the title. Though the high-profile publicity that followed might have upped its commercial potential, it also threatened to foil the director’s domestic yet ambitious effort. The movie subsequently gained an over-worded new name, which became an object of ridicule, though it was not exactly aimed at Weinstein Co., much less at Daniels himself. The director, meanwhile, struggled to tackle formidable subject-matter, that is, race relations in 1960s America. But then, he aims even higher; he conceives of blending into a grand organic whole this particular chapter in the history of institutional injustice and the timeline of a man’s life. A multitude of cases in epic cinema, however, have shown such a narrative conceit is often prone to a sprawling mess.
That skepticism has proven un-groundless, to a degree. Among the mixed reviews it has met with, points of criticism vary: a glaring lack of subtlety to episodic form, to caricature portrayals of the past presidents, to a shamelessly sentimental coda, and even to an oversimplification of history. Now, an unabashed exhibition of emotion, clumsy plotting, and tonal inconsistencies are nothing new when it comes to Daniels’ work, not limited to The Paperboy. So that The Butler is in essence an inflated historical drama, driven in large part by the urge to enumerate all pivotal events of the struggle for racial equality, especially in the final years of Jim Crow segregation, shouldn’t be a surprise. Not to mention that as most stories like this do, it plods towards a cathartic resolution of a contrived sort.
But instead of patronizingly calling it well-intentioned, I’d rather focus on a few scenes where the movie works best and which make audiences wish it offered more goodies like them. To recap, two major threads of conflict interweave here. One concerns the titular character’s Gaines family and the other the momentous passages in American history at large. The former pertains specifically to Cecil Gaines, a seemingly complacent White House butler, and his rebel son Louis. It’s this father-son dynamic that at once produces the most convincing of dramatic moments in the movie and is a metaphorical device for varied reactions to and aspects of the civil rights movement, which Daniels makes a point of tracing one by one.
Despite the gratingly arbitrary plot turns and the equally grating reliance on contingency, a sequence which appears at the midpoint may well be the most poignant and poetic of the entire film. It crosscuts between Cecil and his fellow butlers preparing a luncheon at the White House and Louis and his activist friends engaging in a sit-in at a restaurant counter. We see a mellow-hued overhead shot wherein the butlers set squeaky-clean plates down on the table and wait on the guests in a choreographed manner, which then segues into harshly lit close-ups of Louis and his fellow activists’ hardened faces when demanding to be served equally and enduring insults and physical abuse. The visual strategy Daniels adopts here is effective, in that the static silence in Cecil’s scene forms a (relatively) subtle contrast with the sense of turmoil in Louis’ scene.
I’d venture further that The Butler also works in terms of Cecil’s character arc—his transformation, or growth if you will, from the don’t-rock-the-boat type to a socially conscious one, who comes to better understand his son and the values he’s fought for. But one thing we clearly learn about Cecil is that the whole time he puts his family first regardless of sociopolitical upheavals. He is seen to oppose Louis’ activism because he doesn’t want his son in danger; he asks Louis for forgiveness and embraces him first and foremost because, well, he is his son, as well as because Cecil has opened his eyes to the changing reality, and to the entrenched absurdities that have to go away. That father-son reconciliation is for sure a moment of saccharinity but an undeniably affecting one. To this, of course, the cast makes the biggest contribution—Forest Whitaker and David Oyelowo together are truly the emotional anchor of the film.