‘The Butler’ struggles to find the proper focus

August 25, 2013
Forest Whitaker in The Weinstein Company's "Lee Daniels' The Butler" BY ANNE MARIE FOX/THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY

Director Lee Daniels can’t seem to catch a break with titling his films. His 2009 effort was originally slated to be called “Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire.” And even though that didn’t really roll off the tongue, it wasn’t good enough for the studio, which didn’t want it confused with “Push,” an action film released in the same year. Ultimately, it was slapped with the utterly awkward title “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.”

Flash forward to 2013, and he found himself in yet another title kerfuffle, this time with a film that was originally to be named, simply, “The Butler.” But Warner Bros. whined that they had rights to the name from a 1916 silent film (which, of course, we all remember starred the irreplaceable Davy Don (?!)). So the director was forced to slap his name in front of the title, giving us the gangly “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” thanks to another studio’s hissy fit over an obscure, forgotten slice of celluloid.

Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker) escapes slave life in the South early on, heading to Washington, D.C., to seek a more dignified job as a butler. It at least provides an air of stability, allowing him to settle down and raise a family with his meager wages. Cecil soon finds himself working for President Dwight Eisenhower, one of eight U.S. presidents he would ultimately serve. Throughout, we bear witness to a tumultuous time in civil rights within the country, from segregation and Jim Crow laws to the rise of Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Panther movement and South African apartheid.

This brings about troubles narratively, though, as Daniels seems either unsure about which storyline to focus on, or is trying to place far too many into the film’s two-hour runtime. The film flirts with Cecil being an absentee father while his wife Gloria (played by Oprah Winfrey) holds the family together, perhaps has an affair and apparently struggles with alcoholism. I say “perhaps” and “apparently,” as they are only included in a smattering of scenes and have no real relevance to the main story.

The couple are parents of two young boys. The eldest, Lewis (played by David Oyelowo), is ashamed of his father’s profession and embarks on a life that calls for more radical steps to social change. This leads the two to bear witness to some of the most troubling, emblematic moments of the movement’s struggles - Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.; the Nashville sit-ins; the Freedom Riders; the Voting Rights Act; and others - with the son directly involved and the father watching events unfold from televisions within the White House.

The film seems to state that working hard and long will pay off in the end, but it also demonstrates that Cecil’s job is consistently demeaning and fruitless. There is no doubt that the civil rights movement was (is?) a complex, slow-going process, but Daniels never truly pulls this together structurally for us. By its conclusion, the film still stirs more than it stalls, and it features a parade of cameos from familiar faces (Mariah Carey as Cecil’s mother, John Cusack as Richard Nixon) that runs the gamut from effective to mere quirky casting choices.

In all its sprawl and aspirations, “The Butler” cannot overcome its episodic feel - as though it was a made-for-television event stitched together into one feature. That’s not necessarily a knock, but it keeps it from the cinematic sweep for which it often aims.

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