Thursday, August 22, 2013
Lee Daniels' The Butler
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is a 90-minute commercial for OWN, followed by a 30-minute commercial for the president. It's been called a black "Forrest Gump," and while it's much better than that flatulent film, it suffers from the same events-driven approach to history you'd find in a grade-school textbook, mixed with a staid and self-satisfied pomposity that too often keeps it from coming to life. The driving emotion behind the movie appears to have been Daniels' fear that someone might accuse him of leaving anything (or any Obama donor in Hollywood) out.
Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, whom we meet as a young boy working the cotton fields of a Southern plantation beside his parents. After the owner's son rapes Cecil's mother and shoots his father within the first ten minutes (Daniels has never been one for subtlety), the matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) brings Cecil inside to work as a "house nigger" (relatively speaking, a plum position). He learns the art of disappearing in plain sight, of making a room feel empty even when he's standing in it, which, when seen by the right people, lands him first a job at D.C.'s tony Excelsior Hotel and ultimately a three-decade career in the White House, serving presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan.
These last are played by the most miscast collection of actors in memory. People laugh when they hear the names: James Marsden as Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as LBJ, John Cusack (!) as Nixon, and Alan Rickman and Hanoi Jane as Ronnie and Nancy (Daniels fast-forwards through the Ford and Carter administrations). Throughout his tenure, Cecil manages to be omnipresent, there to pick up Caroline Kennedy's doll when she drops it and later to console a blood-spattered Jackie after JFK is assassinated. With Nixon bloated, disheveled and under siege at the height of Watergate, to whom does he deliver a late-night promise never to resign? You guessed it. Observing these ersatz interactions, you feel like a tourist at a wax museum - not Madame Tussaud's but the cheapo joint next door.
O plays Cecil's wife Gloria, and it's a showpiece role (obviously - the movie would never have been made without her). But did she forget the Academy already gave her the Hersholt (on the same warped timetable as Obama's Nobel Peace Prize)? It's not that she's so bad, she's just always…Oprah. Whitaker does a nice job of bringing dignity and substance to Cecil, but he's not around for the early years, which prove to be more interesting than anything that follows. The most compelling material in the picture actually involves Cecil's son Louis (David Oyelowo), whose activism (itself Zelig-like) sees him join both the Freedom Riders and the Black Panthers. There's a terrific scene in which he and his colleagues practice for and execute a lunch counter sit-in as Daniels cross-cuts between the verbal and physical abuse they endure and Cecil's self-abnegating service at a state dinner.
But too little of the material musters the same energy. Compare it to Shola Lynch's exceptional documentary "Free Angela and All Political Prisoners," which teems with lifeforce, or Tanya Hamilton's "Night Catches Us," which gave us the denouement of the Black Panther movement in a gorgeous spectrum of color. By contrast, "The Butler's" recitation of seminal events in the civil rights struggle feels trite and surface-deep. We've been there, done that - and more than once.