Director: Lee Daniels
The film follows the whole life of Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), from his childhood on a plantation in the Deep South, to the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009. Becoming a “house nigger”, he works his way to Washington DC, where he is scouted by White House staffers and offered a job as a butler. On the home front however, Gaines has to deal with the alcoholism of his wife (Winfrey) and the increasingly radical politics of his eldest son (Oyelowo) who becomes a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement. Having sworn to be politically neutral, Gaines finds it harder and harder to reconcile his duties at work and his duties as a father as his interests conflict and clash against the backdrop of the Kennedys, Vietnam, Watergate and the Reagan Years.
Daniels clearly wanted to make a film about Civil Rights. It comes as no surprise to learn that the whole storyline with his son’s direct involvement with the Movement was added for the film. Obviously it makes dramatic sense to explore Civil Rights issues when making a film about a black White House butler, but as a result, the film has become less about the subject it promised (a through-the-keyhole insight on some of the most interesting figures in modern history) and more of a Forrest Gump-esque “I was here when” saga of events Gaines wasn’t even involved with. We see Martin Luther King Jnr, the Black Panthers, Little Rock; so much attention is lavished on these issues that Watergate becomes almost a footnote. Had the film promised to be a film about Civil Rights I wouldn’t be complaining, but the film I thought I was watching wasn’t the film it turned out to be. The Butler ended up as a family saga set in the Civil Rights era; the fact that its protagonist happened to be a butler at the White House became almost a subplot, which considering that his family’s characters are completely fictional means that the true story behind the film seems incredibly unremarkable after all.
There’s no doubt that Daniels is a competent director. Precious is a fantastic movie, while The Paperboy was a peculiar film stuffed with good ideas. Unfortunately it would appear that in The Butler he bit off more than he could chew. In wanting to humanise Gaines he placed too much emphasis on the family, and while trying to anchor the story in history he placed too much emphasis on one particular facet. The film already spills over the two hour mark and he should either have gone one way or the other; sliced big sections off and focused on just one strand, or fleshed out both sides and turned this in to the historical epic it was trying to be. While The Butler isn’t a bad film per se, it’s a film that didn’t live up to its tremendous potential. And in a year when the Awards Season is going to be dominated by 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen’s brutal slavery drama, The Butler will be quickly forgotten in favour of this much meatier weighty drama.