Just to be clear, it’s actually not called The Butler. It couldn’t simply be called that, because the man who directed it also made Precious, and that was actually Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. But don’t worry. What could have been The Butler: A Movie Adapted From a Wil Haygood Washington Post Article That Was Only Partially About a Butler in the White House is actually just Lee Daniels’ The Butler. It’s ludicrous — the title, I mean. This movie is a mini-monument to mini-monumentality, like a tower of motel Bibles.
Nonetheless, with this much fake hair and real sweat, with this much down-and-dirtiness and lack of seriousness passing itself off as high solemnity, with this much indecency and entertainment and Dinah Washington and Soul Train, with this perfect a balance between bad taste and best intentions, who else’s movie could The Butler be? It’s true that Daniels isn’t Spike Lee or Tyler Perry. He’s not a household name. But I don’t think that’s the point of turning The Butler into Lee Daniels’ The Butler. It’s Lee Daniels’s movie because it’s not Stanley Kramer’s or Rob Reiner’s. It doesn’t have the piety and starchiness and reverence Hollywood usually reserves for a movie that starts in a cotton field in 1926 and ends with Barack Obama in the White House. It doesn’t have a white interloper to make the black experience palatable. It has Oprah Winfrey saying “Get this low-class bitch outta my house!”
Daniels has probably seen The Help. He knows we have, and he understands that a great deal of its popularity comes from its desperation to sanitize the grimmer aspects of race and racism and the civil rights movement. He’s made a movie that is neither obeisant nor obsequious, one that doesn’t airbrush and defang history, one that actually feels a little bit unsanitary. It’s not an interpretation of actual history as much as it is a reduced revision of movie history. The film dichotomizes the civil rights era as a time of servitude and insurrection, and puts all that strife at the door of a single black household.
The story Wil Haygood wrote in 2008 was a short, reported history of black people in the White House. The emotional hook was a butler named Eugene Allen, who’d served in eight administrations, from 1952 to 1986. Haygood’s piece was roving, but it had a flinty historical recall. Obama hadn’t yet entered the White House (the piece ran near Election Day), and the article used historical anecdotes to imply that Obama’s odds were long. The benefit of hindsight permits the movie to be more sanguine about assorted presidents’ relationships to the service staff.
Screenwriter Danny Strong first distills Haygood’s piece down to the butler’s perspective on his employers and pries it free from fact. Allen becomes Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a family man mild in manner, pleased to serve, and devoted to his homemaker wife, Gloria (Winfrey), and their two sons, Louis and Charlie, played by David Oyelowo and the very funny Elijah Kelley as adults.
The tension between Cecil and Louis gives the film its trumped-up, obvious politics. The boy looks at his father, who wears a tuxedo at work six days a week, and sees a man doing nothing to advance civil rights — Cecil enters the White House during the Eisenhower administration and leaves during Reagan’s second term. Almost out of rebellion against his father, Louis attends protests, drops out of Fisk, becomes a Freedom Rider, then a righteous jailbird, a member of the Black Panthers, and finally, an anti-apartheid activist. Cecil worries about and resents his son’s truculence, not because he doesn’t sympathize, necessarily, but because he understands the danger of the fight; he can overhear presidents discussing the risks.
Yes, this is the sort of movie in which a character happens to be present for every important historical conversation and revelation. Anytime a remark is made in the Oval Office about racial politics or civil rights, there’s Cecil coming or going or standing stock still with a silver tray. Ordinarily that trick would result in an iffy memoir. Or it’s Forrest Gump. Since Cecil performs the narration, The Butler achieves the preposterousness of both. But there’s something here that’s impossible to dismiss as old-school TV-movie hokeyness — or as a riff on the lessons, wisdom, and schematic, episodic storytelling structure of, say, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. (Of course, the dreary, old-age makeup, which brings Whitaker and Winfrey too close to Troma Entertainment for comfort, is a different story.)
Daniels doesn’t try to protect us from the mess of these four decades or the point-blank murder that opens the film in 1926. He doesn’t romanticize the Gaines middle-class life. It’s utterly earthbound. Gloria drinks and smokes, but not abusively. There’s something adulterous going on with her good-looking, no-good, front-toothless neighbor (Terrence Howard), but the years (and the script and maybe even Winfrey’s vanity) straighten out the character morally so that her lapses don’t seem entirely careless. The woman feels real. So do the men and women with whom Cecil works.
Daniels likes murk and chaos and excess. He appreciates the stinky pull of luridness and the dark comedy that sometimes comes with it. And his rhythms have always been weird. There’s a sequence that crosscuts a semi-baroque White House banquet (brown hands slipping into white gloves; a grand, choreographed entrance; a vague air of proud, black hauteur) with Louis and the Fisk kids training in a basement as members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for their sit-in at a Woolworth counter. The kids, white and black, invade the whites-only section while the black butlers elaborately serve only whites. Daniels juxtaposes one highly civilized affair against another whose civility is ripped away. We see the students, including Louis’s future girlfriend, Carol (Yaya Alafia, formerly DaCosta), put through a practice wringer, only to suffer the real thing at the hands of white racists their own age. The camera looks up from the counter and, during the training, up from the floor, while at the White House it seems to float above the dinner table. Daniels jumps between the performative presentation of food in the government setting and its weaponization at the Woolworth — kids being slapped, squirted, and doused with cream, ketchup, and coffee. Jumping among the three events — the banquet, the training, the protest — is overkill. But it’s a bizarrely powerful juxtaposition.
That sequence is typical Daniels. He likes to overwhelm and dismay and provoke. The Butler is his fourth movie as a director. 2005’s Shadowboxer (an erotic thriller with Cuba Gooding Jr., Helen Mirren, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Mo’Nique), Precious, and The Paperboy precede it. His production company also gave us the button-pushing sexuality and ethical provocations of both Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman, which featured Kevin Bacon as an ex-con pedophile.
What unites them all to one extent or another is their obsession with luridness — with sex and violence and violent sex, with crime and sensation and pulp. Daniels wants us to feel something everywhere in our bodies except for our heads. There’s no thinking with him. He knows there’s a visceral kick to a certain nasty form of movie-making, and he isn’t afraid to give it to us: the tears, guts, and fried pigs’ feet; the breasts and erections; the primacy and inhumanity. The first good image we get of Jacqueline Kennedy in The Butler comes after her husband’s assassination. While she’s a wreck, the camera pans up her leg to study the blood on her bouclé. We don’t even see her face in that scene. It’s a rude shot. But for him it’s honest. Daniels is like Oliver Stone without the intellectual condom.
What we’re dealing with here is a true trash artist and the craziest filmmaker in America right now. Precious and The Paperboy are vulgar triumphs. This might sound like faint praise, but only in the churchiest sense, as when you stand up before a preacher, testify, scream “Hallelujah,” then pass the hell out. Daniels is free of that urge filmmakers of all races have to lift everybody up. For him blackness is beautiful, but it’s also something to be overcome — the pathologies, self-doubts, self-loathing. There is a way of being black that’s abject and can leave you woebegone. That way of being black is called the blues, and Daniels can be a thrillingly bluesy director.
The Butler isn’t perfect. The last 30 minutes or so aren’t even very good, but the script needs to complete itself. Cecil has to meet Barack, and so there are about four scenes — with old Cecil and old Gloria — that make you laugh and cringe at the same time. The chief problem with The Butler is that it can’t keep still. There’s nothing for an audience to sink into and get lost in. The march from one administration to the next — and from one dreadful casting choice to another — starts to feel promiscuous, from a dotty Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to a petite and dashing JFK (James Marsden) to a brash LBJ (Liev Schreiber) to a soppy Nixon (John Cusack) and a moony Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman). Cecil interacts with each president, but he’s written as a bystander for too much of the movie. Whitaker wears a short brown rug on his head and too much makeup (the movie is so far from Eugene Allen’s life that he really doesn’t have to look like anyone specific, so why not have him look like Forest Whitaker?), but the quick emotional flashes that are the key to Whitaker’s acting don’t arrive. The performance is merely steady, like two hours watching a pilot light.
Even so, Daniels remains such a confident director of actors that you have to wonder how much worse off Whitaker might have been without him. Winfrey has never been a natural actress. She had carriage, but her line readings tend to be stiff and her face is rarely expressive. The highly quotable, force-of-nature work she did in The Color Purple made no sense in a misbegotten yet misunderstood movie like Beloved. This performance is a breakthrough. She doesn’t need that sorrowful, blow-the-house-down stuff anymore. She no longer has to perform authority. She trusts herself to radiate it. You don’t believe her as a housewife, but you don’t believe her in the right way, because she’s too glamorous to stay home. Winfrey’s not a mother. She’s a matriarch.
The thing to love about Daniels is his sense of campiness and kitsch, the idea that nothing is above reproach. Nothing can be taken out of historical or artistic proportion. In the first 10 minutes, he frames Mariah Carey (as Cecil’s mother) and Vanessa Redgrave (as Cecil’s owner) with the same deadened face, from almost the same angle, so that you can’t tell which of them is the acting legend. The Butler doesn’t care that none of the men playing any of those presidents — or the women playing their wives — is right for the part. Minka Kelly is Jackie O! Cusack makes a comically pathetic Nixon. He appears to be melting before our eyes. Nelsan Ellis plays Martin Luther King Jr. and doesn’t go for too much. He just mingles with his staff in his room at the Lorraine Motel, being casually wise. Then there’s Jane Fonda, who has a few short scenes of overwinking irony as Nancy Reagan. There’s an amusing shot of her making an exit, using Reagan’s borderline-seasick walk. You can imagine Fonda being pleased to lampoon Nancy’s occasional lack of grace.
A lot of what this miscasting does is restore these icons to an approachable, human scale. But once the kitsch and campiness take hold, it’s hard for Daniels to free himself from them. A scene between two characters standing amid Southern slave quarters gets a big laugh because the two characters are wearing vinyl 227-era tracksuits. But those sorts of unserious details start to matter over on Louis’s half of the movie. (He’s Jenny to Cecil’s Forrest.) As he and Carol travel through the greatest and worst hits of the civil rights movement (they, too, are present for most iconic moments), as preppies, Panthers, and protesters clad in kente cloth, it begins to feel like Halloween. The Afros and black berets and cut-out shirts and dashikis are wearing them, instead of the other way around. With historical events, Daniels’s knowingly disrespectful kind of badness has its limits. He might have wanted to show us how to make an irreverent historical epic. But he’s just reimagined Saturday Night Live as sketch dramedy.
People really like Chloë Grace Moretz in the Kick-Ass movies. She plays a foul-mouthed vigilante called Hit Girl. Originally, the gag was that an 11-year-old had a dirtier mouth and faster hands than Nicolas Cage, who played her dad. In Kick-Ass 2, she’s 15, and both Cage and the thrill are gone. A tough, trash-talking tween was a naughty novelty. But throw a rock and you’ll hit the teenage version. The first movie, which Matthew Vaughn directed, gave us ordinary people who wanted to be comic-book superheroes. It had the kind of high energy that could distract you from how appallingly that energy was deployed. Of course, being appalling seemed to be that movie’s point.
The sequel is also based on comic books by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., but was adapted and directed by Jeff Wadlow, whose previous movie was 2008’s adolescent-boy fight bulletin Never Back Down, a stupid but fascinating brawl-a-thon that feels like more of a comic book than these civilian superhero movies — it’s Kick-Ass, too. Wadlow’s sequel has a blunt, literal vulgarity. One character’s slatternly alter ego is “Night Bitch.” Christopher Mintz-Plasse resumes his part as the movie’s lisping, douche-geek villain, and he comes up with a new name for his character after frying his mother in a tanning bed and finding her S&M paraphernalia. Mintz-Plasse sells it. (He’s like an undergrad Ed Helms.) But after 20 minutes, it’s clear that subversive wit or big ideas won’t be factors for Round 2. (Oh, and Morris Chestnut and John Leguizamo are on hand for glorified butler duty.)
Once again, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Dave Lizewski, a New York City high school nerd who becomes Kick-Ass by night, and once again, he manages to be more interesting than almost anybody you can imagine in a role this generic (he’s 23 and can act; that helps). It’s not Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker. But that’s only because the material doesn’t give Taylor-Johnson a lot to perform. Moretz tries to toughen him up for crime-fighting, which her character, Mindy, reluctantly renounces. Instead, she becomes a plain-old high school girl. So Dave joins a league of homemade heroes, which includes Donald Faison and Jim Carrey in a crew cut and disfiguring face makeup.
The sequel has some good gags, too. High school plus Hit Girl basically equals Heathers. But all the wonder and surprise of the first movie is gone. It’s just aping the violence in other movies and other comic books. It doesn’t feel quite real, but it doesn’t feel fantastical, either. That violence drove Carrey, who’s 51 and a dad now, to risk spending the rest of his life as a Comic-Con villain by renouncing his participation, citing the Sandy Hook–ness of it all. But the fact that he spends the movie dressed like an impostor of himself suggests he had kind of changed his mind before the cameras even began rolling.