This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 3rd November 2013
Subtlety is not Lee Daniels’ middle name.
His breakout film Precious was a desperately raw and compelling drama about one girl’s abusive upbringing which garnered Oscar nominations and proved both Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey can really act. Following up with the much-lambasted The Paperboy (notorious for several unsavoury scenes, notably Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron’s jellyfish sting), he unsettled critics – was the director a flash in the pan or some sort of misinterpreted genius?
With The Butler, it’s still not entirely clear. While artfully crafted, it is at times overblown and risible, suggesting perhaps that Daniels is still finding his own way.
Following opening scenes which are jarring both in tone and for the worst acting ever seen from Vanessa Redgrave, the story of a young black man who enters into a life of service swiftly matures into something very engaging. Beautifully lit and sumptuously costumed, Cecil Gaines takes up a serious work ethic and supportive wife (a terrific Oprah Winfrey), dusts the chip from his shoulder, and makes a career out of “working for the white man to make things better for us”.
As a potted history of the America throughout the 1960s, The Butler delivers some fascinating and gruelling insights. Civil rights are upheld and downtrodden, none more viscerally than when Gaines’ activist son and his peers sit in the “wrong” part of a diner, their dignified silent protest brutally trounced by the outraged white patrons. These are things we know about, have seen before, but somehow they’re rendered fresh and newly shocking.
Aptly, the butler serves to lead the audience through this history, his life at the White House encompassing eight presidential occupancies, and it’s here that the film risks tripping up as it attempts to race down a long corridor of narrative carrying too much starpower. Cameos from Robin Williams, John Cusack, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda become distracting, though James Marsden’s JFK nails the voice and inevitably contributes some of the most affecting later scenes.
As the adult Cecil, Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) adopts his oft-seen gentle, loping giant persona, and aside from some fiery paternal outbursts he is mostly out-performed by the likes of Winfrey (don’t sneer at Oprah – she was an Oscar-nominated actress before she became a media mogul). But the film limps a little and suffers from trying to be too many things to too many people. Daniels may have fared better by following his protagonist’s lead and doing less.