Lee Daniel's The Butler

August, 2013, Drama


This independently-produced film (by the man responsible for Monster’s Ball & Precious) manages to condense the entire civil rights movement into an agreeably-paced, made-for-TV style soap opera, masquerading as incisive history lesson. Thanks to strong performances by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, Butler barely avoids descent into banality, mixing cartoonish depictions of 8 recent presidents (via cameos by famous Hollywood faces) with pictures of African American family life that teeter perilously on the brink of caricature. Producer/director Lee Daniel’s name is on the title and his sentimental style lives in every frame.

 Butler grows out of a newspaper article by Will Haygood that traced the long service of Cecil Gaines, a butler who served the residents of the White House from Eisenhower to Reagan.  Screenwriter Danny Strong’s script runs on and on over 132 minutes, tracing Gaines (Whitaker) from the cotton fields of Georgia to 2400 Pennsylvania Ave., never missing an opportunity to conflate the entire civil rights movement with the man’s marriage to wife Gloria (Winfrey) and his tortured relationship with older son Lewis. Meandering from newsreel footage of historical events to fictitious presidential exchanges and on to extended scenes showing Gloria’s drinking and Louis’ involvement in the movement’s evolution from peaceful protests to lunch counter sits-ins to “Freedom Riders” to The Black Panthers, Daniel’s struggles to make Gaines and his family emblematic of an entire generation of African Americans - a premise too insubstantial to carry the weight of the director’s intentions. The results veer from the profound to the mawkish and back again, making The Butler pleasant enough to look at, but woefully short on its efforts to cover such a vital and defining part of America’s recent history.

 The Verdict? A feel-good, cinematic variation on painting by the numbers.

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