Lee Daniels' The Buter was "bad": it is good, or at least within good's wheelhouse. But it's certainly not good in the way that I, for one, was hoping for, and considering the (legally-mandated) possessive right there in the title, is is less of what history has conditioned us to expect from "A Lee Daniels Film" than anything that director has ever made. Lee Daniels' The Butler is in fact awfully generic, as a story and as a visual experience, and neither of these things have been true in any way of Daniel's squalid exercises in high-energy trash and tubthumping; the gloriously misguided Shadowboxer, the high-speed oscillations between grotty realism and overheated melodrama in Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, and my personal favorite, the florid Southern exploitation film The Paperboy. Also, the fact that I just attached the description "personal favorite" to The Paperboy can be rightfully considered my full disclosure for the rest of the review.
Lee Daniels' The Butler is, basically, a film with its heart very clearly in the right place, and its imagination left behind in a locked root cellar - it is very much Civil Rights Edition Forrest Gump. Not quite so cloying as that, maybe, but as far as plot goes, it feels exactly like something you've seen before, and given the setting, the actors, and the filmmaker, there's no way that isn't disappointing.
The film tells the life story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a condensed, fictionalised figure who, after a fashion, stands in for all the African-American men who served as butlers at the White House in the post-war 20th Century; he also, after a fashion, stands in for the totality of the 20th Century African-American experience, which is one of the places that that the movie causes undue trouble for itself. The son of sharecroppers whose father was brutally killed by a savage, rapey white landowner in 1926, Cecil clambered his way up the domestic servitude ladder, eventually ending up with a wonderful wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and two sons in Washington, D.C., where he caught the attention of the White House, and hired onto that establishment's elite staff of servants, a role where he toiled through eight presidencies and the most turbulent decades in the entire history of black America. Because of the story it's telling, there's probably no way that Lee Daniels' The Butler could have ever been "elegant", but it surely didn't need to turn out as mechanically schematic as it did, with Cecil's elder son Louis (David Oyelowo), deeply opposed to his father's studied apoliticism, getting involved with activist politics and managing in the process to be present at just about every key moment of the civil rights movement from 1960 onwards from the reasonable (the lunch-counter sit-in at Greensboro, NC) to the fucking absurd (he was in the hotel room when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated), so it's actually he, not his father, who fills the Forrest Gump role, though Cecil is the one interacting with presidents. A mixture, then.
The film's need to play as a Greatest Hits of the civil rights movement inevitably makes the film clunk along from one scene to another, though in its defense, I must say that screenwriter Danny Strong does a better job of stitching moments together than Gump scribe Eric Roth does in any of his "one man's life throughout history" scripts. Not enough to make the film seem organic; Lee Daniels' The Butler sputters rather than flows, and while the film's various designers do a good job of using costume and setting to indicate the passage of time, the story's chronology is awfully murky in ways that do it no good. It's a real damn biopic, in the end, not so much a story as a collection of moments, failing to build up momentum as a narrative or as a message movie, though Daniels tries his very hardest to keep pushing the whole messy project in a contained direction, whose end point is "...and then there was the Obama presidency".
No doubt about, the film's themes are worthy of exploration, and given the paucity of films the stare history right in the face and attack the United States' history of racial oppression from the point of view of African-American storytellers, it is unquestionably a film of considered social and political value: I have no idea what the film imagines its target audience to be, but as a white person with a very dim opinion of how white people, as a class, deal with non-white people, I found the film's unapologetic tone of "fuck you, racist whites, you have done terrible things" to be an exciting contrast to the vast corpus of American films about racism, which are always a bit too self-congratulatory about how "we" (and we are always, oddly, pink-skinned in these settings) are better than those nasty backwards rednecks. But that doesn't make it a better work of drama, just a potent message picture. And who the hell goes out to the movies because they want a real rock-solid message picture? Nobody you'd want to talk to at a cocktail party, that's for sure.
Daniels's limited creative energy doesn't help: not only is it the most programmatic script he's ever worked with, his directing is muted and uninvolving, not ineffective so much as it is bland, and this makes the scripts problems rise to the fore, whereas the director of Precious and The Paperboy tended to make those scripts' flaws more invisible. Only twice does Daniels do something truly impressive and florid: once, in contrasting the execution of a White House state dinner with the lunch counter sit-ins, itself a schematic choice that the director (and editor Joe Klotz) manages to put over through the collision of graphic elements, giving it a visual energy that the film otherwise lacks, while a Ku Klux Klan attack a bit later is staged exactly like a horror movie, as cinematographer Andrew Dunn indulges in foggy chiaroscuro and the blocking feels much more "Jason Voorhees" than "racial suprecmacists" - the brashest part of the movie and the best, since it is the one that is most overt about how much it straight-up despises racism, without any handwringing or "let's see both sides" nonsense.
Still, two scenes in a 132-minute film is hardly anything, and what ends up making Lee Daniels' The Butler work at all - and even so, it only works by the barest margin - are the three main actors, Whitaker, Winfrey, and Oyelowo, all giving totally commanding, complex performances (and standing out magnificently from the cornucopia of distracting cameos, including a wordless Mariah Carey as Cecil's mentally unhinged mother, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, and James Marsden as a watered-down cartoon Boston accent sitting in the Oval Office while the real John Kennedy is off fucking movie stars), each in a slightly different register, but marshaled by their director - always great with actors - into a unified, tripartite whole. Winfrey, acting for the first time in 15 years (if we don't count voice work) gets the showiest and certainly the most fun role, finding the exact right note between physically performing her character's frustrations and sexual urges while vocally leaving off at a much lighter Sassy Black Woman level that never feels as clichéd as that stock type usually does; but even as great as her life-force is, and Oyelowo's tense, vibrating rage, it's Whitaker who gives the film its most complicated performance, as a man who tells us that he wears two faces, but doesn't realise himself that he has, in fact, three faces, and the struggle between implacable manservant to absent-minded whites, proud and conservative family man, and African-American male who has seen horrible things but is terrified of the upheaval that would come from challenging them, is played out entirely beneath the surface of Whitaker's endlessly mutable face. It is a rich performance, and a subtle one, and one that makes Cecil far more interesting than the script does; and that's in addition to Whitaker's extraordinary ability to handle both the requirements of playing a specific man and a Stand-In For a People.
By itself, Whitaker's performance is reason enough to be glad that Lee Daniels' The Butler exists, though not enough to be out-and-out enthusiastic about it. It's still an awfully sullen and hushed movie with a painfully modular approach to scene structure, and there is no crackle of energy, just subdued, respectful blandness. Lord knows there are worse Serious Message Pictures out there, and this one has the benefit of an especially worthy message, but it lacks spark. And spark is the one thing that every other Lee Daniels film has had most of all, so its absence here is particularly noticeable.