Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), an African-American man born into a family of sharecroppers and schooled in the art of “knowing he’s black,” spends 34 years of his life in domestic servitude under seven presidents. While Cecil waits on de’ white folk, dignifiedly fighting to change the system from within, his politically active son Louis (David Oyelowo) turns left on Forrest Gump Drive, bearing witness to everything from the Freedom Writers to the Black Panthers.
Lee Daniels’s schmaltzy, Classics Illustrated abridgement of the Civil Rights movement found its origins in a 2008 Washington Post article by Wil Haygood. Emmy Award–winning screenwriter Danny Strong (Game Change) spoons on the sugar, transforming the story of real-life White House maître d’hôtel Eugene Allen into a sprawling and sometimes pandering saga that never slackens in spite of several flat-out weird casting choices (John Cusack as Dick Nixon?) and a myriad of historical happenstance.
Considering how many thumbs were poked in this pie, it stands to reason that an occasional plum be pulled. Dr. King’s (Nelsan Ellis) illuminating thoughts on the subversive nature of domestics helps to pitch Cecil’s silent suffering to a higher level. And I deemed it wise to contain my laughter — it was a packed screening — during Louis’s dead-on boil-down of Sidney Poitier’s career.
Cinematographer Andrew Dunn’s filmy lens can only shave so many lumens. Instead of the warm sense of period the filmmakers were shooting for, the baked harshness and blaring color design add a touch of gauzy nostalgia, reminiscent of Universal in the ’70s or one of Poitier’s overlit sequels to Uptown Saturday Night.
The inclusion of the director’s name in the title is but another crackling log on the paradoxical bonfire. Originally intended as a Spike Lee vehicle, the director did the right thing and bowed out at the last minute. Tyler Perry’s name came up without mention of Madea — the role of Whitaker’s wife went to Oprah Winfrey — and the reins were eventually placed in Daniels’s hands. Due to a conflict that arose over a 1916 Warner Bros. short titled The Butler, the MPAA granted the Weinstein Company permission to tack Daniels’s name to the head of the title.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is the type of “important” A-list confection, sold with sentiment and steeped in historical fact-bending, that would have sent MGM Studios golden-ager Louis B. Mayer reaching for his checkbook. With Harvey Weinstein — the closest thing contemporary cinema comes to a movie mogul — FedExing screeners to every academy voter and critic in the land, rest assured that, come awards time, The Butler will be served.