Thursday, August 22, 2013
Review: LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER
While I adored the story it was recounting, and the incredibly able, expertly assembled cast of black actors in its support, LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER left me cold. And I was disappointed that it did so. Least of all concerns, the shameless stunt casting of almost all the presidential cameos was underwhelming, as I predicted early on after seeing its trailer. But, most vexingly, the film as a whole was generally, and genially, silly on the screenplay and directorial levels. It talks down to its audience, no matter its makeup, and assumes it knows nothing, and I found that hard to take (actually, I found this insulting). Regardless of subject matter, THE BUTLER is another of those many extra-respectful bio-pics that sets out to cover too much history, and too much of its lead Cecil Gaines' life (the character is based on real-life White House butler Eugene Allen, and I have to ask: why didn't they use the man's real name?) And so, as it trundles dutifully through eight decades of black strife and achievement, THE BUTLER tiredly plays like "America's Most Horrible Hits" as do so many forgotten Hollywood bio-pics. Out of a generous 135 minute running time (and a better movie could have supported even more time), fully 15 minutes of the film is taken up with "televised" versions of all those incredibly important but widely-seen film clips some of us have viewed about a hundred times before in documentaries and narrative films dealing with the 1960s and 70s (there are lots of shots of people watching TV in THE BUTLER, and this is never a good thing; what's less interesting than watching people watching TV?). Even if you make allowances for younger audiences (and are we all really now being asked to sit through movies that are dumbed down for those audience members who really have no value of history), I ask you, once you've seen it: Imagine what THE BUTLER would have been like if it had simply taken place between the years 1963-1971 (with a epilogue set in Obama's 2008). Can you possibly see where that would have resulted in a more focused and exacting film?
Visually, Andrew Dunn's colorful cinematography for THE BUTLER impresses (unusually so for a 2013-era period piece--red, yellow and blue actually appear in full here, and the film does not read overwhelmingly sepia as many present-day period movies do). Ruth Carter's vibrant costuming is also deeply impactful throughout, most particularly when leads Forrest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey joyfully appear in matching black-and-white disco suits in their initial 1970s scene together, though they don't get much time to revel happily while so bedecked. But it's Danny Strong's screenplay that takes things down here: it ladles on massively distracting cliches, especially in its unneeded narration (there are plenty of scenes that would've worked on image and performance alone, but the overly-obvious voiceovers make your discomfited eyes roll back in your head). Lee Daniels' direction stays on a gracious level (too gracious, actually--surprisingly so for this director of the more daring PRECIOUS and THE PAPERBOY) but Daniels' efforts build up to spectacular fashion in one single, jarring scene that searingly intercuts between three locales: a diner sit-in (with black protesters defying a whites-only seating law), a usually regal VIP serving at the White House, AND the brutal, name-calling preparation black protesters subject themselves to in preparation for an onslaught of white insults. This sequence is remarkable in its imagination and structure. I am left only to wonder what the whole movie would have been if it had risen up, in entirity, to match this memorable highpoint.
I also love some of the party scenes at the butler Cecil Gaines' home. Though the writing in these scenes is sometimes too self-aware, it gives a large portion of the black cast (including Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Pernell Walker, and Dana Gorrier) a rare opportunity to play off each other, with lively results (this is the best I've seen Cuba Gooding Jr. perform in a good while; he really impressed me here with his energy and humor, and it reminded me why he won his Oscar in the mid-90s). I loved Forrest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey as the film's leads--Whitaker is impossible to dislike, in any movie--but I did get antsy at the fact that Winfrey's character is confined mostly to the claustrophobic Gaines household for the film's entirety. She's only seen outside the house in two key moments, and the final one--the one we expect early on will be the big payoff--is instead a massive dramatic letdown. Still, they're both quite fine in the film, and the chief reasons to see it (and, though she's actually the female lead in the movie, Winfrey is assured a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, especially for her shining final scene).
Oh, and those presidents...ugh. John Cusack, with his sweaty face and pointy fake nose, fares a little better than I would have expected while playing Nixon, but I still saw SAY ANYTHING's Lloyd Dobler in front of me, and found myself not understanding why it's so difficult for moviemakers (including Oliver Stone) to cast an actor who actually resembles the incredibly unique-looking Nixon for that role. Alan Rickman does recall Ronald Reagan with all that caked-on makeup, but he's doing a sleepy Southern/British accent as "Dutch." and it just totally does not work (though I would add that his portrayal, as a politician who acts differently one-on-one than he does when expected to tow party lines, is historically accurate). The rest of the actors--James Marsden as JFK, Liev Schreiber as LBJ and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, among the best of them--are correctly cast for their roles, but they barely register as characters, as they are seen so briefly. Still, I get that the movie isn't about the presidents, and that's fine...but why cast huge stars in the roles? Why couldn't have the excellent Anthony Edwards played Dwight Eisenhower? How about the jowly Dan Hedaya as Richard Nixon (yeah, he played him in DICK, but why should that be a negative)? Given the long running time, I was thankful, somehow, that Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were left out of the mix, though I had to wonder if a scene with Carter might have been the most interesting one in the movie (could I posit a wig-wearing Ron Howard as Carter?) And why does Vanessa Redgrave need to be in there for a 90-second role, when absolutely no one goes to see a movie nowadays because Vanessa Redgrave is in it? Ahhh, it's all so confusing, and I dislike that I even have to ask these questions, or attempt to "fix" the movie, and maybe I'm being a too-picky blogger now. But if THE BUTLER were made with more steadfast integrity, all this conjecture would be unnecessary...
Furthermore, and most negatively, I have to add--having Cecil Gaines' son (David Oyelowo) carry the transparently Forrest Gump-y aspects of the movie--as a man who was always there at the right time to be a witness to history--was a poor decision (though Oyelowo, a fine actor, does his best to sell it). It's ridiculous that his character--in this film that's "based on a true story"--finds his way into the Memphis hotel room outside of which MLK was shot, while later becoming a high-ranking Black Panther (with an afro-ed Angela Davis stand-in, presumably, as girlfriend, which denigrates HER standing as a black hero), and even later being a top protester against South Africa's apartheid, and later still winning U.S. senatorial standing, all while being the trailblazing lead character's son (without that aspect of the son's past ever being something that ANY of his cohorts talk about specifically, though it is bandied that house help for white people has played "an important role in our people's history"). All of this is astoundingly reductive, as if all black people had everything to do with what all black people were doing (historically, absolutely no one in MLK's circle had anything to do with the Black Panthers, and absolutely no former Black Panther has made their way anywhere near the Senate). And I have to ask this...how was this politically radical son, as an inevitably closely watched person, able to make way into the White House kitchen to late at night to confront his father in one key 1960s scene? Now, I realize, it seems that I am babbling on about the film's shortcomings, and maybe it seems that I'm picking on it. But that is just something that THE BUTLER forces you to do, as much as you want to love it. And I wanted to love it. Eugene Allen was a lion, and his story is a valuable one. But, the way it's told here, THE BUTLER is all just too much to swallow, and I kept wishing that the filmmakers had stuck more lovingly and closely to the actual narrative of Eugene Allen's life (though, I should add, Daniels and company did get some details of Allen's amazing career correct, including his accurately-portrayed aid to Jackie Kennedy after JFK's assassination). Still...I mean, really...why the heck couldn't the filmmakers have just recounted Allen's ACTUAL story (and using his real name, and telling the true history of his family, or even--God forbid--leaving that soapy element by the wayside?)
I wouldn't argue that LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER is a movie not worth seeing--it's important, yes, for black history, and certainly for those black and white people who don't know such history, and that largely means members of those groups born after 1990, whom I gather (from personal experience) don't realize any history existed before the advent of the Internet. But I will say that Daniels' movie simply and sadly registers for me--a movie lover, first and foremost, and a history maven second--as an opportunity squandered. With over three years of prep time, and with a story that was massively worth such effort, THE BUTLER could have been a seriously great film. Now, as it arrives, it's merely a well-intentioned one.
I finally have to add: where are the black-directed bio-pics of Oscar Micheaux, W.E.B. Dubois, Frederick Douglass, Miles Davis, Louis Armstong, Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis, James Brown, Shirley Chisolm, George Washington Carver, Richard Pryor and about a thousand more black heroes whose stories need to be told (and whose stories exist largely outside of the time many of us have lived through, and whose stories largely do not require the participation of many white characters)? I know that it's hard to get these movies made in white-controlled Hollywood. But it's absolutely time for this to change. This is the lesson of THE BUTLER: If the goal is to educate, and educate us all, then let's get goddamn down to educating, and artfully so, too!
BTW, this is a link to my reaction to Sasha Stone's unqualified positive take on the film on AWARDS DAILY.