In Lee Daniels’ The Butler, there’s a shot of a man walking across a bog, depicted from the perspective of a silent observer looking down into the water and seeing naught but a reflection of a shadow barely present in the water, threatening to disappear at any moment. Beautiful and expressionist-tinged, it potently captures, better than any word ever could, the reality of race in America – African-Americans torn down to whispers of human flesh almost unobservant to the white eye, seen only through the prism of mirrors and reflections when you’re really looking at something else, glimpsed only in fleeting, peripheral moments by powerful forces who don’t want to acknowledge the presence of race.
A shot that is specifically fitting in light of the film’s larger themes: race as filtered through the secret, intimate places of America, the kinds we don’t often see in film land, such as in the heated, heavy hearts of an African-American father who was taught to disappear, to keep his head down, and a son who knows the power of harder-hitting, more direct action. The film is desperately in need of more shots like this, but nuance or filmmaking panache have trouble emerging from the thick, gauzy cinematography, mythical backlighting, and self-congratulatory, episodic narrative structure which is far more interested in creakily parading the main character through historical events than in genuinely exploring his soul or the soul of the America that created and denied him. Rather than pulsing shots of dramatic filmic invention, the film would rather batten down the hatches with annoyingly on-the-nose lines like “We have no tolerance for politics at the White House”.
The film, boasting a dubious but intermittently potent screenplay by Danny Strong, tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a boy who grew up on a Southern plantation in the early 1900s in a world that was nominally post-Slavery but knew nothing but white oppression and black lives as shadows on a white field. Cecil’s father is killed before he grows up, and after a handful of years serving as house servant on the plantation, Cecil leaves to become a successful servant in a hotel, a position that teaches him a mantra where-in the best path to the limited success African-Americans were afforded at the time is to keep your head down and your heart focused on serving white society. Eventually, he is accepted to a position in the White House, serving for Presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan, fulfilling a backdrop to many of history’s most important events.
His greatest tragedies, however, are at home, barely finding time to spend with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and engaging in a decades long conflict with his eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo), who increasingly grows tired with his father’s passivity and acquiescence to white society. The conflict between Louis and Cecil is the heart of the film, the only genuine narrative highway throughout and the source of most of its most dramatically compelling material. The film gives short shrift to the Black Panther Movement and the argument for black violence against white society, but it amiably goes out of its way to humanize various outlets for social justice while still driving forward with a necessary social critique of passivity. Although it follows Cecil, it isn’t his film, nor is it ultimately his perspective.
The film’s pacing is afforded no recourse by Strong’s relentless pit-stops down side roads and stunt castings as Cecil must interact with a cornucopia of sitting Presidents in programmatic scenes that lack dramatic integrity and function more as spot-the-actor games. These are scenes the writer included not because they added to the texture of the intimate tale of father and son, but because he felt an arbitrary need to include a President or two. Or five. Scenes like these wheeze when they ought to burn, and the same can be said of the depressingly soggy conclusion that doubles-down on the narrative-of-progression myth (not to mention doubling-down on the strings of Rodrgio Leao’s mildewy score) and posits that President Barack Obama’s election to the White House is legitimate proof of unmitigated social progress over the past half-century.
The film has its moments though; Lee Daniels in full Oscarbait mode is still Lee Daniels after all, and the heart of Less Daniels is thick and brimming with passionate, perverse ideas about cinematic storytelling. Even if muted by the necessities of the screenplay, Daniels’ eye for the steamy, sticky Southern backwoods – with mist and humidity almost rendered tactile in his thick brew of racial hatred and the Southern imagination – shows through in the early moments. He has more than a handful of counter-intuitive variations on how to transition from scene to scene that helps to briskly, energetically cut through some of the stodgy waxworks pieces on display when Cecil is dragged out to play ball with a major white figure too often. The only scene where Daniels truly comes to life, however, is an attack on a freedom bus lit with the fires of hell by cinematographer Andre Dunn, the only genuinely grungy work of pulpy neo-exploitation (Daniels’ best mode by far) in a film that expends too much effort on respectability.
Thankfully, Daniels has a handle on actors, and his main trio give fire-and-brimstone performances for the record books, selling even the wateriest dialogue and working double-duty against all the film’s other efforts to hurt itself. Whitaker, who has been written off in bit parts in drowsy action films for the past few years, galvanizes the screen in a layer of dialectical tension, finding the negative space between “contained rage” and “passionate passivity” lashing out at each other to capture the dueling demons of life as an African-American who feels as much like a citizen as he does an unwanted leper. Winfrey, in her first acting role in many years, relishes the part, showcasing some of Daniels’ freewheeling and playful hand toward actors and imbuing life into a role without sacrificing her genuine lust for the part. Oyelowo, a year before lighting the place on fire with his powerhouse portrayal of a man with the world weighing down on him, Dr. Martin Luther King, plays an equally passionate discontent as Cecil’s son, who loves his father but hides none of his genuine anger toward a man and a society who have let him down time and time again.
The three leads are the only participants who don’t drown in the script’s good intentions though. They alone (and Daniels when he wakes up occasionally) light a fire in what is otherwise an exercise in futility. A century ago, someone once referred to a particularly nasty film as “like writing history with lightning”. They were not entirely wrong as far as craft goes, but they forgot the adjectival attachment “white” in front of that particular unholy force of nature. The Butler, which admirably aims to correct the moral flaws of that film, only sparks once or twice. It is not a bad film, but it desperately needs to be shaked and rattled if it is ever to really hum.