Hammer Time! Lee Daniels’ The Butler (DVD review)


By Niall McArdle

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I never saw Lee Daniel’s Precious, or to use its full title, Precious, based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire; if it’s anywhere near as unsubtle as Lee Daniels’ The Butler, I’m not sure I want to. The Butler is not a terrible film. It has moments of brilliance and some fine performances, but the film is hampered by its insistence on squeezing as much history as it can into its running time. It uses newsreel footage and period music to fill in the blanks in the story, and it telegraphs every emotion. The result is an interesting but potted history lesson that should be seen by middle-school students studying the American civil rights movement. In spite of the talent in front of and behind the camera, it never rises above the level of TV movie of the week (indeed, perhaps it should have been a longer, more in-depth miniseries).

Based on the life of a man who served eight U.S Presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan, the film covers all the highlights (or lowlights) of American history in several decades since Eisenhower: the integration of schools, the freedom riders, Martin Luther King, the Kenndy era, Vietnam, the Black Panthers, Nixon, Ron and Nancy Reagan.

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The centre of the story is Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), son of a Georgia cotton-picker, who is taken in as a “house nigger” by his mistress (Vanessa Redgrave) after the son of the house murders his father. Young Cecil learns to serve, and learns that the key to service is to be invisible, or as his mentor (Clarence Williams III) points out, “we got two faces: ours, and the one we gotta show the white folks.” Eventually he makes his way to Washington and the White House, and he’s there as American history unfolds around him.

In many ways the film reminds me of Downton Abbey, another simplistic melodrama that shoehorns a lot of history into a story of life above and below stairs.

"My Lord, it appears women want the vote." "What? We've just got over the trauma of the 'Titanic', the Great War, the Irish rebellion. We're still getting used to electricity, the motor car and the telephone, not to mention bloody tuxedoes. And now this!"
“My Lord, it appears women want the vote.”
“What? We’ve just got over the trauma of the ‘Titanic’, the Great War, the Irish rebellion. We’re still getting used to electricity, the motor car and the telephone, not to mention bloody tuxedoes. And now this!”

 

It’s a shame that Daniels didn’t have more faith in his audience; he could have told much the same story if he had focused on Gaines’ domestic life, because those scenes are by far the film’s best, mostly because of Oprah Winfrey. Drunk and slatternly, she gives one of the few honest performances in the film, and she’s very good. Winfrey has only acted a handful of times, and her performance here is a reminder that if she hadn’t chosen to become “Oprah” the global media superstar, she could have been a great character actress.

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Instead, what we get forty years of history filtered through some very odd but interesting Presidential cameos. Robin Williams as a quiet, troubled Eisenhower; James Marsden as a bright-eyed Kennedy; Liev Schrieber as a grumbling, constipated LBJ; John Cusack as a darkly intelligent Nixon; Jane Fonda as a spiky Nancy Reagan; Alan Rickman as a befuddled but stubborn Ron.

Unfortunately, these fine actors occupy only a few minutes each, and we get only a tantalising glimpse of their lives. Did little Caroline Kennedy really ask the help about the freedom riders? Did Nancy really try to keep “more moderates on the staff”? Did Nixon complain about flies in the Oval Office? Was LBJ really as penny-pinching as he’s portrayed here, demanding that lights be turned off? Live Schrieber has LBJ’s profile and gruff demeanour. Nixon was probably never as loose-limbed as John Cusack, but Cusack captures the cadence of his speech. There’s a great moment where, as Vice President, he pops into the White House kitchen to persuade the black staff to vote for him. “I don’t want to say anything negative about that Kennedy boy, I’m sure he’s a real nice fella. But do you really want that spoiled, rich, sonuvabitch fuck to be your next President?”

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There are great performances everywhere in the film. Cuba Gooding, Jr. is Cecil’s crass, joking co-worker; Lenny Kravitz is his smart, serious co-worker; Terrence Howard is an irascible neighbour who is having an affair with Gloria. As the title character, Whitaker is good as always. There are few actors working today who can manage earnestness without mugging for sympathy, and it’s a difficult role: like Forrest Gump, Cecil witnesses history while remaining unaffected by it, even as one son becomes a Black Panther and the other is killed in Vietnam.

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The script is by Danny Strong, who also makes a brief appearance (you may remember him from The Gilmore Girls and Mad Men). The film also stars David Ovelowo as Louis (very good), Yaya Alafia as Louis’ beautiful, more militant girlfriend Carol (very fine), Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy, and in a blink and you’ll miss her appearance, Mariah Carey as Cecil’s mother.

The DVD includes a behind the scenes feature, deleted scenes, interviews with the original freedom riders, a gag reel, and a music video with Lenny Kravitz and Gladys Knight.

Verdict: Three LBJ Prune Juices out of Five

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2 thoughts on “Hammer Time! Lee Daniels’ The Butler (DVD review)

  1. Your review echoes many other Niall, and does not encourage me to seek out this film. However, I am compelled to agree on Winfrey. A fine actress, underrated, and still has a potential career out there, if she can eschew the chat show pap.
    Regards from Norfolk, Pete.

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  2. Good review Niall. Not as cheaply sentimental as it could have been, however, it does begin to get a tad bit preachy by the end. Then again, maybe that’s just how this story needed to be in order to get its message across.

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