The Butler Review: Why Did It Have To Be Lee Daniels’?
Some filmmakers deserve to have their name above the title of their movies. Names that instantly come to mind are those like Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Stanley Kubrick, and Walt Disney. One name that doesn’t: Lee Daniels.
Now, in Lee Daniels’ defense, the choice to put his name in the title of The Butler was not a vanity one made by him personally. It was instead the result of a rather ridiculous lawsuit from Warner Bros., which sued over a silent short film they produced in 1916 with the same title. The makers of what is now officially called Lee Daniels’ The Butler lost said lawsuit and were forced to change their title so it wouldn’t be confused with something that almost no one living today has seen. Makes sense, right?
The reason I even bring this up is because having a director’s name incorporated into the title is typically the mark of a legendary talent who’s trademarks would be completely recognizable throughout the film by even casual filmgoers. But with only four films under his belt (including one massive stinker in The Paperboy) Lee Daniels has not earned the honor of touting his name next to the title and the fact that I enjoyed Lee Daniels The Butler was actually in spite of many choices that he made as a filmmaker.
This is a film written and directed to essentially hit the lowest common denominator of film watchers. Almost every scene rings with a sense of predictability because so much of what you’re seeing has been done so many times before. The film has a presence of something that WANTS you to cry at certain points and WANTS to be a contender for major awards rather than simply earning those things by being great in its own unique way.
In many ways this feels like a film that could have been made in 1995 and not a single frame would be different. This isn’t the absolute worst thing in the world but the lack of innovation and risk keeps the movie as a whole from becoming something more memorable or brilliant.
The strength of The Butler lies in its amazing story of a man who served eight presidents in the White House and got to witness the world around him change through advances in the civil rights movement. It’s a story that makes Forrest Gump look like an underachiever and rings with a poignancy that cannot be denied.
And if Lee Daniels deserves any great credit here it is surely for the immensely impressive cast that he assembled for the film. Leading the pack is the always great Forest Whitaker who gives a strong and steady performance as Cecil Gaines spanning at least 50 years. It’s a mostly quiet performance but the strength and power is in his eyes during those moments when he’s supposed to be invisible.
As Cecil’s wife, Gloria, Daniels pulled out all of the stops and cast entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey who hasn’t acted on screen in quite some time. I was initially nervous that I wouldn’t be able to see her on screen and think of her as anything but the persona that is Oprah but she surprised me here with a really great performance that showed off a believable middle class side of her that I didn’t necessarily think possible. It’s probably a safe bet that we’ll see her in Oscar contention this season.
Not to be outdone is David Oyelowo as Cecil’s son who takes part in the full civil rights movement in about every capacity imaginable despite the misgivings of his worried parents. Oyelowo is a star on the rise and we’ll certainly be seeing a lot more of him from now on in no small part thanks to his fine work here.
And even though the role is much smaller I think a little love needs to be thrown to Elijah Kelley who plays Cecil and Gloria’s other son. He only has a few scenes but he adds a much needed sense of comic relief that doesn’t feel out of place or cheesy, which it easily could have with a weaker performer.
The rest of the cast reads like a Who’s Who of Hollywood playing either friends/family of Cecil as well as the presidents of the United States themselves. The likes of Mariah Carey, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr. (who’s actually good in it!), Lenny Kravitz, Robin Williams (who looks and sounds more like Harry Truman than Dwight Eisenhower), John Cusack, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Liev Schreiber, Jane Fonda, and Alan Rickman doing a dead-on impersonation of Ronald Reagan. Most of these roles are quite small but serve their purposes well without being a distracting mess of Celebrity I Spy.
When all is said and done this impressive cast and powerful story overwhelm any shortcomings to be found in the dull direction and a screenplay full of predictable (and sometimes unbelievable) moments. So although I think Lee Daniels’ The Butler could have been better with a different name in that title, this is an honorable effort that is well worth seeing and just shy of greatness.