LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER Review: History Is As History Does
I’ve been on record for a very long time with the opinion that, when it comes to the release of a major motion picture (read: not a documentary), Hollywood is not beholden to strict historical accuracy. The most obvious reason Hollywood can’t stick to every letter of history’s texts is that recreating history to that level of detail, in a running time of two-ish hours, is wildly impractical. Shortcuts, event mash-ups, and other devices deliver the point, maintain history’s spirit, and keep the story compelling (if done well, of course). Beyond that reason, to me it’s this simple: Hollywood is an entertainer, not an educator. Anyone who goes to the 7:20 at the multiplex and expects to walk out of the theater and run a category on Jeopardy! is, at worst, terribly misguided, and at best, is a product of our soundbite-driven, infotainment-fueled society, where feed-it-to-me-quickly-and-with-pretty-pictures-and-I’ll-take-it-as-gospel is the new CliffsNotes.
So when Hollywood’s latest high-profile “historical” film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, hit theaters with its uplifting story and impressive cast and Oscar-bait hype, I approached it the way I have approached every other film like it – including 1991’s JFK, 2012’s Lincoln, and films before and between – concerned about the telling of the story and the acting of the cast and the film as a film (not so much the Oscar-bait stuff). I wasn’t concerned about the history behind it, but by the time the closing credits rolled, I found myself thinking that Hollywood history had somehow repeated itself.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a slave’s son who was raised on the cotton fields of early-1900’s Georgia. As a boy, circumstances move him from working in the fields to working in the house, where he learns the ways of being a butler. Serendipity provides him several other opportunities, the last of which is working as a butler in the White House, in the service of eight presidents, for more than 30 years.
The film also tells the story of Gaines the husband to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), whom he met on his road to the White House; and Gaines the father to Louis (David Oyelowo), a rebellious son whose passion for the radical vein of the Civil Rights Movement clashes with his father’s passive approach. There is a younger Gaines son, Charlie (Isaac White as young Charlie, Elijah Kelley as teen Charlie), as well. As the years pass, and as Gaines works tirelessly to provide for his family what his father couldn’t (and really, what those dreadful times wouldn’t allow), and as history is made and witnessed, relationships between husband and wife, and father and son, are tested.
The performances in this film are simply marvelous, and the strongest player on a very crowded bench is Winfrey. An actor’s biggest challenge is to make the viewer forget the celebrity they are, and celebrities don’t get much bigger than Oprah. But from the minute she appears onscreen to her final frame, she is Gloria Gaines, not Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines. She makes it look so effortless, and the fact that she acts so infrequently (four dramatic films … FOUR … in 28 years) is beyond enviable.
Next to Winfrey is Oyelowo as Louis. He deftly balances roles of father’s son, mother’s son (there is a difference), brother, lover, activist, and activism leader, not only all at once, but over the span of decades as both he and his country evolve. While Whitaker and Winfrey have development with their characters, Oyelowo’s is the character with the greatest arc, and he manages it excellently.
The remainder of the supporting cast is solid, from Vanessa Redgrave as Annabeth Westfall, the plantation owner who gets young Cecil out of the fields; to Yaya Alafia as Carol, Louis’ fiery partner in activism. But the true supporting gems are Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr. Howard plays a personal friend of the Gaines with eyes for Gloria, whose drinking problem and loneliness (while Cecil puts in countless hours at the White House) makes her susceptible to his advances. Gooding Jr. plays another butler in the White House and is both comic relief for the staff and an ally to Louis when he and his father become estranged. Both actors, who have had their share of onscreen struggles, brought their award-winning games of old to this film.
As for the presidents and the actors who play them, they are less a collection of talented individuals portraying historical figures and more a gang of colluders participating in an exercise in stunt casting. There is always an inherent risk with high-profile cameos. Where main cast members have settled into their roles and are no longer those celebs, the sudden appearance of someone famous, particularly when playing a famous person, can break the mood of a scene by triggering that reaction in the viewer of, “Hey! That’s X playing Y!”
It happens five times in this film. “Hey! That’s Robin Williams playing Eisenhower!” “Hey, that’s John Cusack playing Nixon!” “Hey! That’s Cyclops and Derek Jeter’s ex playing the Kennedys!” (James Marsden and Minka Kelly) “Hey! That’s Liev Schreiber playing Johnson!” “Hey! That’s Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as the Reagans!”
Making matters worse are two glaring issues. First, despite their collective limited screen time and despite the fact that I like them all as actors (except for Kelly), the stunt-cast players are varying degrees of bad. I actually mistook Dwight Eisenhower for Harry Truman, Cusack is no more Nixon than I am, and Rickman – who is my favorite of the bunch by a mile – is simply dreadful as Ronald Reagan.
Second, director Lee Daniels skips the Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter administrations, opting instead to offer brief video montages of news footage of the ignored presidents. I understand the possible concern for time restraints, but when you stunt-cast every other president Gaines worked for and then insert real footage of real presidents (as opposed to two more actors-as-presidents) into the film, it makes the five presidents portrayed feel that much more fake.
But the film’s fatal flaw, that part that took me back to Hollywood circa 1994, is its Forrest Gump-like approach to fortuitously inserting the characters – particularly Louis – into history. (There are no particular spoilers here, but I do cover a good portion of Louis’ path.)
In the course of his life, Louis participates in a lunch counter sit-in (leading to being assaulted and arrested); finds himself on the terrible end of police dogs and fire hoses; is with Martin Luther King, Jr. when the leader is assassinated (and by “with,” I mean Louis is part of King’s inner-circle of advisors); and helps form the Black Panther Party. All of this from the son of the most famous White House butler ever. What a coincidence!
I understand the intent. Louis isn’t simply one person, but rather a representative of a greater whole – the focal point that allows the tale of the Civil Rights Movement to smoothly transition from major event to major event in the context of a larger story. Plus, he and his father act as a joint conduit (for the viewer) between the strife of America’s changing social landscape and the insulated cocoon that can be the Oval Office. But it simply doesn’t work here because of the specificity of Gaines’ history being presented.
This film has been heavily marketed to potential ticket buyers as an “Inspired by” tale. Even today, on my Facebook timeline, The Weinstein Company touts the film’s premise as a “… true story life story … ,” and it is that – a tale inspired by the story of real-life White House butler Eugene Allen, who spent decades in his role and served eight presidents and did other things represented in the film. That sales pitch suggests that the events presented, while modified to fit the cinematic structure, are historically accurate in spirit. Yes, the Gaines-as-butler story is accurate in spirit; the Gaines-as-father-and-husband story is accurate in spirit; the Civil Rights Movement events are accurate in spirit.
But by linking those three things, Daniels is selling to the audience that this based-on-fact butler was not only a key figure in presidential history, but that the son of the based-on-fact butler was a key figure in American Civil Rights history, and that American history as a whole is better off for such serendipity. That defies any spirit of fact.
The filmmakers here used the character of Louis the way Forrest Gump‘s filmmakers used the title character of that film: as a person whose circumstances lead him to be a part of major American events so that those events can be better presented onscreen. The difference, though, is that director Robert Zemeckis and the rest of Gump‘s filmmakers never presented their story as anything remotely factual. Here, Lee Daniels and his filmmaking team have cheated to tell … make that sell … a story. In fact, it was such a good sales job, this is the first time in the years that I’ve been writing about movies that I actually fact-checked the story after the film. I wasn’t looking to nit-pick; I was simply stunned that I had never heard about this great American coincidence. Now I know why I never heard it. It never happened.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a film carried by – and certainly worth watching for – the performances of its cast. I just wish that the inspirational story about a little-known chapter in American history hadn’t taken such fictional liberties.