February 21, 2014
Much like the title character it essays here, Lee Daniels’ The Butler had to wear two faces to get made. Beneath the ‘stars in biopic drag’ that parade at the forefront of this period piece, is a far-reaching socio-political discussion that charts the splintering of two generations of the all African-American family.
The scars left by slavery shape, then sharpen, attitudes and behavior, as one epoch falls to the next.
The roots of oppression may tie Forrest Whitaker’s Cecil Gaines to the bow-headed subservience that allowed him to create a life away from the lynchings, rapes and murders of his youth.
But it also nurtures his son Louis’s (David Oyelowo) refusal to kow-tow to the accepted order, providing the sustenance that sees him through the beatings, the arrests, the familial derision-and eventual abandonment, that come from aligning himself with visionaries like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and The Black Panther Movement. He sees the potential for an improved future rather than a survived present
Using this frame to portray the conflict that exists between those standing up to the system and those working within it, Daniels’ exploits the father/son relationship to examine how the ebbing of youth affects change by disregarding (and at times disrespecting) the path paved by their forefathers.
He also exploits the potential offered by Gaines’ position to take a Forrest Gump style romp through famous faces playing famous faces.
There’s Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. You’ve got Mariah Carey as a raped plantation worker, followed by Vanessa Redgrave as said plantations owner and isn’t that (Hanoi) Jane Fonda as the First Lady Nancy Reagan?
All these performers are on form and Terrance Howard, Cuba Gooding Jnr and Lenny Kravitz are terrific as the friends and colleagues of Gaines.
As his wife, Gloria, Oprah Winfrey gives the best performance in the picture, booze tippling and fag smoking her way through the pain of being a two-way street mowed down by conflicting ways of thought .
But she typifies Daniels’ chief failing .Her character states outright her feelings for no greater purpose than to push the plot forward. She and every character- bar the titular Butler, exist to personify history without the personable intricacies to make us care about them. And Gaines himself seems solely to exist to give us a chance to curtain twitch at histories momentous moments.
To give us snatches of conversations held in the Oval Office without the context, Daniels reduces the whole civil rights battle to good versus bad, black vs. white, without much care for the complexity of the men in power and attitudes of the time.
Rather than examining the dichotomy that existed between the world Gaines worked in and the world he lived in, Daniels directs scenes involving the infamous with a wink and a nudge. They hence lack gravitas, diluting the movies central struggle. And since the fictional characters work only as bookmarks or footnotes in history, rather than as real people, we end up taking very little from the whole affair.