Like his previous film, The Paperboy, Lee Daniels’ new film, The Butler, is a wonderful mess. Discarding the most fundamental Aristotelian rule, unity of action, the film jumps with wild abandon across decades of experience as it tells the moving story of Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker), a butler at the White House. In one jump cut, the film moves from the 1980s Reaganite defense of apartheid in South Africa to the 2008 election of Barack Obama. The film’s epic pretentions make the 1979 four-part NBC miniseries, Backstairs at the Whitehouse, in many ways a more successful project about the same content, look like a 23-minute sitcom. And yet, despite the disastrous narrative construction, individual scenes in The Butler are absolutely terrific, far more ambitious than anything found on a network television miniseries. These scenes make one dream of a talented filmmaker capable of reigning in any one of these ideas and building a great film around them.
For example, the film uses stunt casting to build a near Surrealist experience of American history. Coke-addled comedian Robin Williams—Mork the Orcan—plays Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man who saved the world from Nazism. Kenneth Branagh’s five-hour film version of Hamlet was similarly stunt cast. However, there was a method to Branagh’s madness: he took the most famous actors (Jack Lemmon and Gerard Depardieu) and cast them as the play’s least significant characters (Marcellus, the night watchman, and Reynaldo, the manservant). Instead, there is not rhyme or reason to the casting in The Butler. John Cusack, that is, heartthrob Lloyd Dobler plays the reprehensible Richard Nixon. Our butler Cecil is privy to the final night of Nixon’s presidency, as he lays in a stupor listening to the tapes that sealed his doom. However, this was already a much greater Robert Altman stage play, Secret Honor, with Philip Baker Hall as the insane Nixon. And, saving the best for last, Jane Fonda and Alan Rickman play Nancy and Ronald Reagan. Rickman isn’t given anything but nonsense to do—at one point he improbably claims to Cecil that he is on the wrong side of the civil rights argument for supporting South Africa’s apartheid government—but man, what I wouldn’t pay to see two hours of Alan Rickman playing Ronald Reagan!
In short, the casting is as ambitious as any film ever made in Hollywood, but the epic scope keeps the film from settling enough on any one moment in order to allow us to savor the mad genius of the eclectically assembled actors. Instead, the film shoots for a grandiose sweep, which could have accomplished something really important if the filmmakers would have committed to one idea. One of the great travesties in the history of adaptation involves the film version of Winston Groom’s brilliant novel, Forest Gump. Groom’s work is a razor-sharp critique of American simplemindedness, making fun of the U.S. citizenry’s shameful lack of knowledge about history. When the idiot Forrest stands next to George Wallace and John F. Kennedy, he is completely ignorant of the difference. In Robert Zemeckis’ film version, Forrest’s cluelessness is turned into a heroic trait of American innocence. It is one of the most anti-intellectual movies ever made, and the fact that it was extremely popular proves exactly Groom’s point in writing his satirical novel.
The Butler had the potential to offer a scathing indictment of the Forrest Gump film. Throughout most of Cecil’s life, he internalizes his bosses’ instructions to have no political opinions, and to blend into the background as he serves coffee to white men making history. Mr. Gaines collects mementos from all of the presidents for whom he has worked, particularly tie clips from the presidential campaigns of Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson, profound opposites when it came to the 1960s civil rights movement. Unlike Forrest Gump, Cecil has learned his lesson by the end of his life: when he is invited to visit President Obama’s white house after his retirement, he chooses Johnson’s clip over Nixon’s. Indeed, given Nixon’s and Reagan’s wretched record in civil rights history, he has no choice but to wear Johnson’s pin, as he seems to not have similarly befriended Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.
Instead of developing the radical antidote to Forrest Gump, The Butler stakes a claim for political centrism. In the film’s best scene, which I wish were housed in a much different movie, the hard-working Cecil has a fight with his son and his girlfriend, who have just joined the Black Panthers after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King. When the kids call Sidney Poitier an Uncle Tom, Cecil kicks them out of his house, supported by the queen of all media, Oprah Winfrey, who plays Cecil’s wife, Gloria.
The scene is deeply resonant with film history. In the Martin Luther King era, when Poitier made films such as 1963’s Lilies of the Field, for which he was the first black person to win Best Actor, he was seen as an emblem of the movement in America toward a post-racial future. By 1967, when Poitier was at the height of his stardom, appearing in integrationist films such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a more radical strain of political thought came to see Poitier as a sell-out merely pleasing to white America. When Cecil’s son Louis delivers that radical critique of Poitier, dismissing the hard work within the system of both the actor and his father, Cecil has had enough. Late in the film, when Cecil and Gloria celebrate the election of Barack Obama, it is clear that the integrationists have won the film’s sympathy, much as a more nuanced present-day film criticism has come to appreciate Poitier’s exquisitely complex performances. If only The Butler could have found such artistic balance, scaling back the many things it wants to say, housing a few of those ideas into a more focused, and effective film.
– Walter Metz