MOVIE REVIEW: Lee Daniels' The Butler



When movies take on the tall orders to tell historical stories, the biggest complication to their success is the tenuous blend between fact and fiction.  Make no mistake.  Tenuous is the right adjective.  That's because, no matter the era and time period or how fervently they say they cling to fact, all Hollywood movies that are "based on" or "inspired by" historical events or "a true story" have more fiction than fact.  "Dramatization," the reconstruction of events to add more drama and appeal, is a necessary tool that every historical Hollywood movie uses, from B.C.-set stories like Troy and The Ten Commandments all the way up to the 2008-set Fruitvale Station.  

It's an accepted practice to allow a few liberties.  Even last year's Lincoln and Argo bent a great deal of truth on their given subjects.  Do your homework and you can compare and label the fact from the fiction from those two films.  You may be surprised by the results.

With movies being a far greater shortcut for the average person (myself included) to reading endless volumes and articles about the real history involved, we want and will our historical movies to end up being the "real story" when so often they are not.  For example, we want the Battle of Thermopylae to be as cool as 300, even though we are smart enough (at least those who do their homework) to know that it is not.

That brings up that aforementioned important balance between fact and fiction.  If the movie's fiction content is too thick, too convenient, too self-serving, or too heavy-handed it can drown out the real history too much and take away from the enjoyment of the overall film.  If a movie can find the right balance to punctuate its real history with reliable, believable, and appropriate fiction, the entertainment experience and historical value both come out intact.  A small measure of being out-of-balance in that way is the only glaring flaw that can be thrust upon Lee Daniels' The Butler.  

Beyond a few large leaps of over-convenient fictional story weaving, the film is a remarkable and powerful experience that everyone should see.  A star-studded cast delivers a highly involving and endlessly interesting historical journey through America's quest for civil rights and racial equality.  Academy Award winner Forrest Whitaker plays the title character of Cecil Gaines, a black White House butler whose 34-year tenure in the position spans eight Presidents.  We see his humble beginnings set on a Georgia cotton farm in the 1920's where his father (rapper David Banner) is killed in front of him, his mother (superstar singer Mariah Carey) is the target of the plantation owner's (Alex Pettyfer) rage, and the young Cecil becomes educated on how to be a "house nigger" by the plantation matriarch (Oscar winner Vanessa Redgrave) and a benevolent pastry shop servant (Clarence Williams III).

After moving from the south to a Washington, D.C. country club, Cecil, now married to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and a father of two boys, is recruited for a butler position at the White House by the maitre d' (Colman Domingo) in 1957.  Together with his two closest co-workers, Carter (Oscar winner Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and James (singer/actor Lenny Kravitz), Cecil spends better part of the next four decades being trusted to serve within an earshot of history and powerful men.  His career spans Dwight D. Eisenhower (Oscar winner Robin Williams), John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schrieber), Richard Nixon (John Cusack), Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter (both omitted from screen time), and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman).  Along the way, while working with wives and children like Jackie Kennedy (Minka Kelly) and Nancy Reagan (Oscar winner Jane Fonda), Cecil becomes arguably the most popular, trusted, and respected man on the house staff.

Away from his tuxedo-clad job, the family and community life Cecil comes home to acts as a vehicle to tell much of the outside history in Lee Daniels' The Butler.  He and his wife have fellow honest-working friends (including Oscar nominee Terrance Howard) that they commiserate with after hours.  Cecil's oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo of Jack Reacher and Rise of the Planet of the Apes) becomes the rebellious child and a secondary storyteller that commands a great deal of screen time.  While away at college in Tennessee, he becomes endlessly inspired and entrenched in the civil rights movement over those same 30 years his father works at the White House.  The epic span from the beginning "freedom riders" to the peaceful protests of Martin Luther King, Jr., the not-so-peaceful ones of the Blank Panthers movement, the Vietnam War, and, finally, the anti-Apartheid 1980's all get elaborate connections to the Gaines family.  Louis seeks and lands in just about every kind of trouble possible and shows the opposite angle of action compared to his father's inaction.

Lee Daniel's The Butler  is the namesake directorial star's fourth feature film, whose strong independent film Precious put him on the map in a big way with six Academy Award nominations four years ago.  His Precious follow-up, the Southern-seedy and Oscar shutout The Paperboy from last year, is seen by many as a misstep.  This enormous and poignant new film will put him back near the rising star top.  He shows great talent in handling a large cast, large story, and large undertaking.  Most of the bevvy of big names and Oscar winners (which was almost one larger with Melissa Leo's part as Mamie Eisenhower left out of the final cut) are glorified cameos, but Whitaker and Winfrey occupy an Oscar-worthy level as the leads.  David Oyelowo asserts himself well as Louis's thread to tie the outside history with the inside family story.

Written by Emmy-winning TV writer Danny Strong and based on a 2008 Washington Post article by Wil Haygood, Lee Daniels' The Butler and Cecil Gaines is based on real-life 1952-1986 White House butler Eugene Allen.  Learning that this film was "inspired by" Eugene's true story, we now have to circle back to that tenuous balance between fact and fiction that comes from watching a film of historical fiction.  This next explanation is going to come across like a political fact-checker poking holes, but this "buyer beware" warning is necessary and this balance is where the flaws of the film come out.  For some, I may have to apologize already.  In its own way, this may come off as a few minor spoilers.

In covering many searing and saddening portrayals of historical events and tragedies, Lee Daniel's The Butler pushes us to emotionally invest in the Gaines family and the larger portrait of the civil right movement happening around them.  From an entertainment standpoint, we can handle the fiction mixed with the fact.  It's even likely that the fiction makes the fact more entertaining in some regards.  Remember, that's the purpose of dramatization.

However, from an emotional standpoint, there comes a point where you feel that you need to know whether or not your tears and sympathies were earned in the right ways and the right places.  The story of the real Eugene Allen is nearly perfectly portrayed by Whitaker and his point-of-view of events and happenings.  The relationship and history of Cecil and Gloria, portrayed Whitaker and Winfrey, is also pretty spot-on. That's the good news.  The bad news is where this movie goes too far with his sons.  The real Mr. Allen only had one son and he was not Oyelowo's Louis, a blazing multiple-arrested-civil-rights-participant-turned-leader-turned-respectable-lawyer-turned-turned-elected-politician that was conveniently front-and-center in every possible civil rights movement over the course of 30+ years.  Far from it, in fact.

The need for, essentially, a "tour guide" of the real civil rights movement events outside of the prim and proper White House was clearly deemed a necessary plot device of dramatization by Daniels and Strong.  The trouble is that it's overly convenient and way too thick in fiction.  How thick?  Try 100%.  Make no mistake.  The history happening around and with Louis is completely real and chillingly recreated.  The trouble is no White House butler's son was ever there.  That's where it's over convenient and unnecessary.  Too much of that fiction steals your emotional investment away from the factual aspects of Eugene Allen's story that are just as affecting and moving when given the chance.

One can argue that there's enough going on at the White House that you don't need the flamboyant Louis angle at all.  That fictional revelation is disappointing too because the Louis tangents greatly take away from the fascinating workplace that Cecil occupies.  That's the real Eugene Allen.  That's where the real story is.  As the lessons will discuss further, how Cecil composes himself with all that is going on around him in that setting and place and with those influential people is what should be the core of the movie.  We know the history outside of the White House walls.  We came to this film to learn the history inside the walls.

Outside of the enormous flaw, there's not a thing wrong with Lee Daniels' The Butler.   How you either get over or don't get over the imbalance of fiction to fact, is up to you.  It's a powerful and entertaining history lesson back to the long road of the civil rights movement that happened now two or three generations ago.  It's a film schools and families should see with pride and without hesitation.

LESSON #1: TAKING PRIDE IN DOING A JOB AND DOING IT WELL-- On one level, Lee Daniels' The Butler is a fascinating behind-the-scenes piece to the role of a butler at the most prestigious and most recognized residence and workplace in the country.  Even though Cecil wears a tuxedo, his work is commonly not glamorous despite being responsible for glamorous appearances.  In order to do that job and do it well, the film talks about the two "faces" every butler must wear.  There's one face that swallows pride and understands one's place of servitude, to be invisible and silent.  The other face is one that actually takes pride in their perfectionist work.  That face is buoyed by the moments of respect shared to them on a job well done.  While the butlers and help staff aren't wearing stars or stripes on their uniforms, they are doing their small part to serve their country.

LESSON #2: THE PARALLEL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN INACTION AND IGNORANCE-- I could fill two of these reviews on just the lessons from this time period in history, but I will keep this focused on the man and family at the center of the movie.  Daniels' film definitely pits father against son in terms of point of view to the ongoing civil rights movement.  Louis feels that he is part of critical generation that had the courage to take action and stand up for his rights.  He looks down on his father's slave-like job and calls him ignorant and uncaring to the bigger picture.  The son missed his father's wisdom completely.  Inaction is not ignorance when you are serving and supporting a greater cause as Cecil did every day.  His cause might not be on the news telecasts every night and be trumpeted through microphones and megaphones, but Cecil's inaction was never ignorance.  The events in the world around him affected him greatly and made his small role all the more important of an example.

LESSON #3: THE EFFECT OF SOMETHING OR SOMEONE SUBSERVIENT BECOMING SUBVERSIVE TO MEANINGFUL CHANGE-- The ending converging reunion between father and son occurs when Louis finally sees that his father's slow-and-steady route of never wavering from one's duty, even a small one, still led to progress and change.  It's the tortoise versus the hare.  Louis always jumped into every fray with reckless passion, even when the side he took was wrong.  Cecil's stoic example is one of steady responsibility, built-up respect, hard work, and an impeccable reputation in remaining unflappable and ironclad in subservient role.  Louis sees that his father's subservient route of being respected and rewarded for service and hard work was as subversive to bringing about change as his own on the front lines of protest.  He sees the value that doing the right thing during wrong times shows that right can defeat wrong at its own pace.