Picture Book Show, by Matt Warren
There are two ways to perceive Lee Daniels’ ridiculous, not unentertaining new film The Butler. One: as Oscar-bait gone hilariously awry—an embarrassing, self-serious stab at profundity sunk by its own stupidity and unintentional camp. Or Two: as a well-intentioned political fantasy for children—something for lazy Junior High Social Studies teachers to show students during a unit on Civil Rights. That the film is a Weinstein Company product maybe tip its awards-hungry hand, but really, the choice is yours. Is this weird-ass thing Pearl Harbor, or is it Ben and Me?
The Butler (officially Lee Daniels’ The Butler due to a copyright technicality) traces the life and career of steadfast White House servant Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker.) “Inspired by” the true story WH of butler Eugene Allen, Gaines (spoilers!) serves the Presidency for 34 dutiful years—from the beige Eisenhower ‘50s to the neon Reagan ‘80s. Born a poor sharecropper in the Antebellum South and raised in slavery-level indentured servitude on a cruel Georgia cotton plantation, Cecil eventually lucks into a service gig at a local hotel. His career steadily escalates, leading to Washington, D.C. and, eventually, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Cecil spends the next few decades rubbing shoulders with a colorful rouges’ gallery of Commanders in Chief, portrayed in a uniformly absurd succession of extended cameos by actors including Robin Williams (Dwight D. Eisenhower), James Marsden (John F. Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (Lyndon Johnson), John Cusack (Richard Nixon), and—WTF!—Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Plus Minka Kelly and Jane Fonda thrown in for good measure as, respectively, First Ladies Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan. No doubt a fun couple of days on set for outspoken leftie Barbarella.
Sure, this sounds like the most awesome episode of Drunk History ever, but there’s a certain twisted brilliance at work here. Certainly a more tasteful film would have opted to keep the Presidents themselves off-screen (and to be fair, neither Ford nor Carter makes an appearance.) But casting Hans Gruber as that other iconic ‘80s tie-wearing motherfucker isn’t exactly subtle. Sure, it’s all one long allegory for Black America’s unsteady cultural footage in the years between Jim Crow and Obama—but it’s also pretty fucking silly. And Daniels’ lazy shorthand for era-specific signifiers (yellow jumpsuits and afros = ‘70s, brightly-colored tracksuits = ‘80s) will no doubt give bad-movie blogs and podcasts plenty of easy ammunition for months and years to come.
But that’s only half the movie. Scenes of Cecil’s professional career are intercut with his domestic life, specifically his relationship with occasionally-adulterous/mildly alcoholic wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey—distracting only inasmuch as I kept thinking the same thing I always think when I see Oprah Winfrey: “I wonder if she and Roger Ebert ever had sex”) and radicalized son Louis, played by a very good David Oyelowo.
The Cecil/Louis relationship is by far film’s most interesting and important dynamic. The father’s servile relationship with literally the most powerful members of America’s white ruling elite is contrasted with the son’s lifelong embrace of the most extreme elements of America’s Black Rights movement. Inevitably, the younger Gaines views the old man as something of a traitor and an Uncle Tom—which, important to note, is not the film’s view.
As Cecil logs long hours polishing brass in the Oval Office, Louis is at various points involved with early-’60s lunch counter protests, the Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign. This complex relationship is easily the film’s most interesting and authentic element. This, despite the fact that Louis’s Forrest Gump-ian rush to embrace seemingly every late-20th century facet of Black Identity is, within the context of the film, just as cartoonish as John Cusack’s slurring, basset hound redux of ‘Secret Honor’ for Dummies.
In terms of narrative, the film drags a bit as it enters a turgid slog through the assassinations and political upheaval of the late ‘60s. This is well-trod material in pop culture, and Daniels doesn’t really add anything new to our understanding of the period. But to be fair, I bet this endless procession of national violence got pretty boring in real life, too. Even Mad Men wisely glossed over much of the same material earlier this year.
Prior to my Butler press screening, the only part of Daniels’ oeuvre I’d experienced was the notorious Nicole-Kidman-pees-on-Zac-Efron-to-save-his-life-from-a-jellyfish-sting scene from the director’s previous outing, hothouse noir The Paperboy. Maybe you’ve heard of this? Well…Nicole Kidman pretty much pees on Zac Efron to save his life from a jellyfish sting. I’d heard about this scene via pop culture osmosis and immediately desired to make the salty aurulent image a permanent part of my internal brain chemistry. I mean, what unfathomable creature wouldn’t? Luckily, Netflix streaming was there to make this dream a reality. Point is: Lee Daniels’ is a filmmaker who—either by choice or by nature—is inexorably drawn toward camp. The Butler isn’t exactly the gay, black, psychedelic fever-dream fiasco I was expecting/dreading/hoping for, but it is lightweight. It’s a contradiction: a film about soberness and dignity placed within with a histrionic, heightened reality.
There’s a lot of incendiary racial material here, but it’s framed in the gentlest way possible. The more you can convince yourself that this is a political fable for schoolchildren, the better it seems. Don’t think of it as a Best Picture wannabe, think of it as a socially-conscious picture book—something with a Caldecott medal on its cover to place on Barnes & Noble endcaps during Black History Month.
As with its characters’ self-identity, The Butler’s success or failure depends entirely on which master you feel it has an obligation to serve. For viewers, there’s no wrong answer.