“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” made headlines over the summer as Harvey Weinstein and Warner Bros. spat over the title. Unfortunately, that is the most interesting thing that came out of this movie. It’s a shame because there is an interesting story here, but it’s handled with the same white gloves Forest Whitaker’s lead character uses to handle the silverware and refuses to ever take them off.
“The Butler” tells the story of Cecil Gains, who served as a butler in the white house from the Eisenhower administration through Ronald Reagan. Set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, many historic and powerful moments are depicted and are shown both from within the white house, and from the actual place (as seen by Cecil’s son Louis).
It is that choice by Lee Daniels that is by far the most interesting in the movie. When he cuts back and forth between Cecil in the White House and Louis in the south fighting for civil rights, the two polarizing scenes work so well together and portray father and son so well. Any other attempt Daniels makes to do so pales in comparison and is formulaic and boring and begs the movie to go back to Louis.
The chief example of how bland Daniels made this movie is the awful narration provided by Forest Whitaker. Narration is a hard thing to have work in the film because of how it so explicitly tells the audience how to feel at particular moments, but when the times when there is no narration are just as explicit, it makes it overkill.
Despite being filled with high-quality actors, the performances underwhelm in most cases. Whitaker does a serviceable job, but early on they describe that a butler has two faces, his own and the one he uses to serve. That is such an interesting dynamic that is never fleshed out by Whitaker, or by the things that his character is given to do. Whitaker seems to keep the same poised disposition both as the butler and at home. He gives the best performance of the film, but that’s not as glowing as an endorsement as it sounds.
Then there are the slew of actors who make cameos as the presidents Cecil serves. Robin Williams, James Marsden, John Cusack, and Alan Rickman come in for a couple scenes, make a point or two about how they stand on civil rights and that’s it. There is essentially nothing else to their performances, as these are not characters, but simply footnotes that had to be addressed. The only one who was truly interesting was Liev Schreiber as LBJ, primarily because he was the most bombastic, but he also actually had the closest thing resembling an arc with any of the presidents.
Oprah Winfrey makes a rare film appearance and provides a solid performance, but isn’t exempt of having more than one moment of utter blandness. She gives a brief monologue toward the end of the film in an attempt to have Cecil and Louis reconnect and it is practically deadpanned from start to finish, and then when she finishes all you can wonder is what was the point of that story? There’s been talk of her as an Oscar contender, but that would likely be based on name only.
Now, what happened to Lee Daniels? After receiving an Oscar nomination for “Precious” he was immediately considered a prestigious director, but it seems like the hype hasn’t panned out. Daniels had a potentially wonderful canvas to tell a story on and but created such a underwhelming vision, outside of the first sequence of Louis fighting for civil rights at the diner.
“Lee Daniels The Butler” is too gentle for the subject matter it is dealing with. Full of missed opportunities and conviently wrapped up resolutions, it makes no strong statement or stirs any real emotions, it simply is there. Boring and forgettable, opposites of what this film actually depicts, which makes it all the more disappointing