If film marketing campaigns were forced to tell the truth, every poster for Lee Daniels’ The Butler would have Lee Daniels’ name bold-faced and italicized. The trailer would be recut to showcase this film’s in-your-face racial and sexual elements, and perhaps people wouldn’t mistake this film for your ordinary biopic. It fits several of the cliches (sappy music, serious narration, actors who play the same part from age 13 to his 60s thanks to make-up, etc.), but this isn’t merely the tale of a dignified black man who serves his country best by serving. Lee Daniels’ The Butler is about the awakening of racial identity, about the different paths black people could take during the era of segregation to be subversive. Perhaps you could view this movie’s trailer as the exact same level of subversion: make white folks think they’re seeing a tidy pleasant biopic about a kindly old black man, and instead make them sit through a wonderfully uncomfortable, cheerfully sloppy, and surprisingly irreverent biopic. Its pulpy pleasures and its stubborn refusal to cut away from this country’s ugliness are what make it so enjoyable to watch. In short, it’s a Lee Daniels movie.
Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) grew up on a cotton field in Georgia in the late 1920s. His parents, played by rapper David Banner and Mariah Carey in the first of several awesomely unexpected casting choices, are treated typically poorly by the young master (Alex Pettyfer!), with the mom raped into submission and the dad brutally murdered the first time he dared hint at the slightest subordination to a white man. As a teenager, Cecil escapes, and with the help of a kindly man in North Carolina (Clarence Williams III!), he learns how to properly serve in order to survive, including the most important lesson: a butler must have a second face, to present to those he serves. Eventually, he makes his way to Washington D.C. and serves at a hotel bar to make a living for his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey!) and two sons Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (played as a teenager by Elijah Kelley). When he’s hand-picked to become a new White House butler, he begins serving the presidents with the help of fellow butlers Carter (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Holloway (Lenny Kravitz). Even as he excels at work, Cecil struggles at home, with a wife who becomes an alcoholic in his absence and a son who simply can’t go along with his father’s apolitical nature.
Like most biopics, its broader strokes can’t help but be… well, broad. It covers ninety years of American history over the span of just over two hours, what can one possibly expect? Yet its actors are given plenty of time in scene to shine. Whitaker is given a severely tricky role, but he wears his second face– his “butler’s face”– with remarkable restraint. Throughout the film, we watch as his son takes literal beatings out in the street while Cecil takes a subtler emotional beating time and time again as the man who’s asked to “be invisible in the room” during a number of painful moments. Oprah gives a terrific performance which will surprise anyone who never saw The Color Purple; it’s hard for a woman of Oprah’s stature to be seen as anything other than Oprah, but she disappears into the role, drinking, dancing, yelling, and aging gracefully as Gloria. Everyone in the cast shines, but Gooding Jr. in particular gets the most fun as the secretly crass head butler, who tells a couple of jokes early on I’m surprised to hear in a PG-13 film.
The trailers seem to imply it’s a movie solely about the butler’s journey, when Louis’s militant life runs parallel all film long. As Cecil works hard to avoid getting into what goes on in the outside world (“no good can come of that,” he says at one point), Louis refuses to be anything other than an active agent of change. Daniels being Daniels, he never lets us look away from the horrors the freedom riders had to endure: we watch women get spit upon, men get hot coffee thrown in their faces, and young black people get persistently degraded and arrested solely for the right to sit where they want in a restaurant. Cecil and Louis are doomed to never see eye to eye, it seems, but as both of their characters change with time, one would expect from a traditional biopic that Louis would finally learn the error of his ways in judging his father’s subservience. Luckily for us, this isn’t a traditional biopic. This is Lee Daniels’ The Butler, after all.
Lee Daniels puts his stamp all over the place here, from his unorthodox casting to his gleefully unorthodox moments. We get Lyndon Johnson taking a shit, spouting racial epithets without a care in the world. We get Oprah and Forest Whitaker wearing matching 70s jumpsuits, about to go to a disco, when something horrible suddenly happens. We get Louis getting his first kiss from his love interest right after a famous act of violence. We get Carter’s aforementioned dirty jokes, we get Terrence Howard lecherously pining for Oprah, we get a spliced montage of brutality against freedom riders with Soul Train dancers. Did I mention we get David Banner and Mariah Carey as sharecroppers on Alex Pettyfer’s plantation (with Vanessa Redgrave to boot!)? By the time Alan Rickman shows up as Ronald Reagan and famous Hollywood liberal Jane Fonda struts in as Nancy, I was in Lee Daniels heaven. It carries all the trappings of a biopic, but Daniels relishes taking it to the bizarre, shocking, and subversive places no other Hollywood director with access to this kind of budget and cast would ever dream. Any of its awkwardness or its imperfections are part of what make it stand out from the pack. Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a Lee Daniels film disguised as Academy placation. Some may hate it for its staunch refusal to fit in line with expectation, but I loved it precisely for its willingness, its balls, to go there.