Film Review: ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’
The director of “Precious” and “The Paperboy” plays things relatively straight in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” a sprawling, highly fictional biopic of longtime White House butler Eugene Allen that also positions itself as a panoramic snapshot of the African-American experience across nine decades. But if Daniels has tamped down the kinky sexuality and outre stylistic flourishes for his first PG-13 outing, his handprints can still be found in the film’s volatile mix of acting styles, gratuitous sentimentality cut with moments of real emotional power, and a tone that seesaws between serious social melodrama and outsized chitlin’-circuit theatrical. At its root the kind of starry, old-fashioned prestige pic the studios used to make, this stealthy late-summer release from the Weinstein Co. (smartly moved up from its original fall date) stands to make a modest killing with oxygen-deprived adult moviegoers, whom the pic will have pretty much to itself between now and the start of awards season.
First reported in a 2008 Washington Post article by Wil Haygood, the story of Allen — who served as a White House butler under eight administrations, eventually achieving the position of maitre d’ — is the stuff that many a producer’s Oscar dreams are made of. So much so that it’s shocking it took years, and more than 40 credited producers of varying kinds, to actually get it to the screen. It’s history as seen through the eyes of the humble envoy to the great men of his time: a black “The King’s Speech” or “The Remains of the Day.” (Daniels himself has likened the film to “Forrest Gump,” a comparison that holds for both good and ill.) And if the real life of your protagonist isn’t inherently dramatic enough … well, that’s what Hollywood screenwriters are for.
So Daniels and writer Danny Strong (a Beltway specialist whose credits include “Recount” and “Game Change”) transform Allen into the fictionalized Cecil Gaines, whose life begins inauspiciously on a Georgia cotton plantation in the 1920s, where he witnesses both of his sharecropper parents (David Banner and Mariah Carey) brutalized by the snarling white boss man (Alex Pettyfer, in one of the pic’s more thankless roles). Shown pity by the elderly matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave), the boy Cecil (Michael Rainey Jr.) is made a “house nigger” and trained in the ways of serving whites that will benefit him over the course of his career. (“The room should feel empty when you’re in it,” Redgrave instructs.)
That kicks off a rather pro-forma account of Gaines’ ascent through the ranks of servitude, first as the teenage apprentice to a kindly North Carolina hotel butler (Clarence Williams III), then on to Washington, D.C.’s swank Excelsior Hotel, where the now-adult Cecil (Forest Whitaker) catches the eye of a senior Truman staffer. The White House scenes that follow prove livelier and more interesting, as Gaines gets indoctrinated by a fussbudget maitre d’ (the excellent Colman Domingo) and learns the ropes from the reigning head butler (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his second-in-command (Lenny Kravitz). In one of the few observations that Daniels doesn’t drive home with a sledgehammer, the presidential mansion is seen as a veritable simulacrum of the plantation house, with the same expectation of “invisibility” for service staff, who are also instructed to see nothing and hear nothing of the sometimes momentous events taking place before them.