Lee Daniels' The Butler


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Lee Daniels' The Butler
"Race is a complicated issue, and knowing the past, Daniels seems to say, is as important as making up your mind to act in the present."

Lee Daniels' The Butler, with powerfully nuanced performances by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, emotionally traces and explains the Civil Rights Movement from the perspective of the fictitious family of White House butler Cecil Gaines and his wife Gloria. Winfrey's trust in her director is palpable and serves as the audience's gain.

Whitaker, as Gaines, is the leading light, his perceptions become ours and with unsettling finesse, he embodies the given rules and at the same time exposes their casual cruelty. He is being told that "we have no tolerance for politics in the White House", which transcends the joke because it becomes clear that "you hear nothing, you see nothing, you only serve" is the negation of personality: "The room should be empty when you're in it."

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The butler assimilates these commandments during his first day at the White House, a scene Daniels chose to underscore with Dean Martin crooning Ain't That A Kick In The Head, with the rhyme "the room was completely black" gaining fresh meaning.

While Nicole Kidman's portrayal of a "Swamp Barbie" in Daniels' The Paperboy was grounded in her carefully selected white shoes, Winfrey's rendering of Gloria as an alcoholic middle-class Washington housewife and mother of her times manifests itself in her hands. The way she smokes and peels a potato at the same time, the languid tempo she chooses to put on lipstick, and how sloppily she holds her drinks sketch out her aching thirst and how close this woman is to dropping it all. She watches from home, sewing, imbibing, talking, while her husband serves the presidents of the United States and her sons go to war. Sally Fields as first lady "Molly" in Spielberg's Lincoln is not too remote.

The younger Gaines' son, Charlie (Elijah Kelley) goes off to fight in Vietnam, the elder one Louis (David Oyelowo, personifying half a century of metamorphosis in one striking performance) fights by rejecting his father's role as servant. Louis guides us, in potent crosscuts to his father's life on the White House staff, along the milestones of the civil rights movement. From department store sit-ins to joining the Freedom Riders, from conversations with Martin Luther King to the Black Panther Movement, Louis is there. It is a persuasive identification device and an important one, because it can function as a lure for audiences who never really looked this way at American history.

Terrence Howard plays Howard, neighbour to the Gaines', as a man on the "dark side" and what we do see is a marvellously unsettling scene between him and Gloria, in which he explains seductively their colliding worlds with the help of two wire dry-cleaner hangers.

Lee Daniels clearly has a different agenda with The Butler than he had with Precious or The Paperboy. The shock value does not come from themes such as incest or transgressive exposures, told with ingenious cuts. The Butler's tale is told almost conventionally, leading from a Georgia cotton field in 1926 to the celebration of Barack Obama's inauguration. Race is a complicated issue, and knowing the past, Daniels seems to say, is as important as making up your mind to act in the present.

Black and white objects are placed as serious humorous optical treats. If it weren't for two cakes, one black and one white in the window of a Southern hotel tempting the starving hero to break the glass, the story would never have occurred, and the future White House butler would never have had the opportunity to dance with his wife in a glittery 70s overall made of black and white bell-bottom swirls.

Daniels gets surprising performances out of his prominent cast with anything but black and white portrayals. Vanessa Redgrave plays Annabeth Westfall, the matriarch of the cotton plantation where Gaines grows up and where he loses his parents to murder and insanity, as a woman always dressed in white who does not want to know what is right in front of her. She sees herself as kind while the bodies are being buried. She wears thick black stockings in sturdy white lace-up shoes and her pity sends Gaines on his way.

Mariah Carey's Hattie Pearl, the butler's mother, is shown as a woman who never had a chance. She haunts him and might be responsible for his choice of wife. "The only thing I ever knew was cotton," sounds like the sentence before the fall, when challenging to protect was a logical option. You have to be taught that disobedience can be lethal in the home of the brave - "The law was against us".

Gaines served presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan (1957-1986) and the screenplay written by Danny Strong is based on Wil Haygood's Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served By This Election” about White House butler Eugene Allen and his wife Helene.

Cecil's son, Louis, learns from Martin Luther King (Nelsan Ellis) about "defying racial stereotypes" and that "a butler or a maid, perceived as subservient, are in many ways subversive without knowing it" but resents the domestic stereotypes his father epitomises to him. The stand-off between father and son, one of the most enthralling mind choreographies on film, happens at the Gaines' dinner table, when the son's criticism of actor Sidney Poitier is counteracted as though it were blasphemy.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Still a question worth asking. It is another inquiry, though, asked, or rather, slurred, by John Cusack's Nixon during his second term, whether Gaines' father was still alive, that makes the vastness of the 20th century recoil in one glance on the butler's face. He reveals the momentary horror in the realisation that the person in power doesn't care at all.

How can and should injustice be confronted?

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness - only light can." This quote by Martin Luther King, placed at the start of the film is actually the question at the heart of Lee Daniels' compelling glimpse of White House history in The Butler.

Reviewed on: 09 Aug 2013
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A butler's eye view of the White House staffer who served seven presidents.
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Director: Lee Daniels

Writer: Danny Strong, based on an article by Wil Haygood

Starring: Forest Whitaker, Liev Schreiber, James Marsden, Alex Pettyfer, Alan Rickman, John Cusack, Robin Williams, Oprah Winfrey, Minka Kelly, Nelsan Ellis, Jesse Williams, Jane Fonda, Terrence Howard, Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz

Year: 2013

Runtime: 126 minutes

Country: US


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