Lee Daniels' The Butler Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo. Directed by Lee Daniels. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
Wielding its possessive title like a threat (even if it was the result of a legal tussle with Warner Bros.), Lee Daniels’ The Butler looked like a potential train wreck. Both Precious and The Paperboy demonstrated that Daniels has a penchant for lurid grotesquerie, and the thought of him applying that trowel to a fact-based story about the civil rights movement was borderline horrifying. As it turns out, however, a little vulgar energy was arguably just what this stodgy genre needed. The Butler doesn’t avoid rank sentimentality by any means, but Daniels does sometimes succeed in bringing shameful episodes of American history to life, if only because we’re not accustomed to being clubbed with them.
The title is misleading as well as unwieldy, as Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who served as a White House butler under every president from Eisenhower to Reagan, is only half of the story. Having witnessed his father’s murder at the hands of a plantation worker, Cecil has deference and subservience to white America deeply encoded in his psyche; he knows his place and waits patiently for the social change he feels is inevitable. His eldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), however, is having none of that. As soon as Louis comes of age, he joins the Freedom Riders, and much of The Butler cuts back and forth between these two men’s diametrically opposed ideas about how racial equality can best be achieved.
This is a fairly hokey conceit, written in broad, ham-handed strokes by Danny Strong (Recount, Game Change), and Daniels does it no favors by employing stunt casting in most of the white roles: Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon (!), Alan Rickman as Reagan (!!!). But his sledgehammer approach invigorates familiar scenes in which Louis and his friends sit at whites-only lunch counters or face off against cross-burning Klan members. Most docudramas, leery of offending, tend to downplay the ugliness of such historical moments; Daniels makes them genuinely uncomfortable, then savvily splices in actual photos as a reminder that these things really happened (and still happen). It’s a clumsy, maudlin film, but at least it shows that there might be a useful context for this filmmaker’s overheated, punishing style.