Movies,

Review via Debate: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Katey Rich
Hi there Steve, nice to “meet” you.

Steven Boone
Nice to meet you, Katey. Loved your review.

Katey Rich
I’m very happy to have “WWBB” in my vocabulary now.

Steven Boone
Haha. So how familiar are you with the work of Lee Daniels?

Katey Rich
I’ve seen Precious and The Paperboy, but not Shadowboxer. Like most people I liked Precious and was pretty revolted by The Paperboy, though every time people talk about The Paperboy I find myself wanting to go back and watch it again and somehow like it a second time. But like you, I think, I find the over-the-top and florid aspects of his style both endearing and exasperating, depending on how they’re applied.

Steven Boone
The Butler was my first Lee Daniels—or at least the first he’s directed. I can sense some of his sensational sensibility behind some of the creative choices in a film he’s produced, Monster’s Ball.

Katey Rich
Yeah, it would be really interesting to go back and revisit Monster’s Ball knowing about Daniels’ directing career. The Butler is probably his most buttoned-up film that I’ve seen, though based on your review I think we both gravitated to the same elements—the looser, bawdier scenes in the house and among the White House staff. There’s a contrast between the stiff “important history” scenes and the lives of the actual characters that really put me off, and it’s the latter that is really Daniels’ wheelhouse.

Steven Boone
It’s the contrast—that clash!—that I dig. I’m sure I’m not the first (or last) to compare him to Samuel Fuller in full tabloid-sensational mode.

Katey Rich
Oh he’s definitely got so much of that. But so many parts of The Butler felt like Daniels hiding his light under a bushel, whether all the heavy handed voiceover (“The law wasn’t on our side—the law was against us”) or the awkward Presidential cameos. You gave the film the credit of those goofy Presidents being part of the joke, but I’m not sure I can go so far. It felt like Daniels straightening his tie to make an Important Movie and ignoring much of what makes his films so interesting—and, when he let loose a bit, setting up a contrast that didn’t really flatter either side.

Steven Boone
I was absolutely certain the presidential portions were fairly inspired bits of cartooning the moment a shot lingered on “Nancy Reagan” sashaying down a White House corridor in her red pencil skirt. There’s so much of that “wink wink” throughout the film. Again, though, I’m operating without any real Lee Daniels context. All that I have to go on besides what I’ve seen in this one film is the legend: a spectacularly tacky/campy showman.

Katey Rich
Well, he did cast Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, so you’re right that there’s some level of joking in there. But the way that Cecil interacted with the Presidents throughout the film, makeup jobs aside, felt so Forrest Gump to me—he happens to be in the Oval Office when each President is making some landmark civil right decision. You contrast that with the looseness of the scenes at home (and the high camp of Oprah, who we can get to later), and it feels more like an error in judgment than deliberate. James Marsden has to sit there as JFK and say “You changed their hearts… and you changed mine.” Who really needs or wants this flavor of history all over again?

Steven Boone
It definitely sets itself up as Black Forrest Gump early on, despite the harrowing violence and Jim Crow imagery—which is why I happily accepted many of the ludicrous coincidences. I was watching a fable. More than Gump, I was reminded of the insane Homeland Security-era Indian melodrama “My Name is Khan”, the Bollywood Forrest Gump. It, too, ends on an up note with an Obama cameo. But I must ask: Was there anything in this film that grabbed you in any visceral way?

Katey Rich
Wow, I actually saw that Indian melodrama, and I was indeed bracing for a weird Obama impersonator cameo at the end of The Butler. To answer your question, I was engaged by pretty much everything involving David Oyelowo, who is a phenomenal actor and had the insane challenge of playing a character from something like age 15 into his 60s. His steeliness as a Freedom Rider and eventual Black Panther—and the intense way Daniels films those scenes—made me want an entire Freedom Riders movie about his character. Alternately, The Butler could have focused on the relationship between Cecil and his son and been perfectly powerful on his own. The effectiveness of Oyelowo’s story somehow managed to make everything inside the White House seem pointless, which is bizarre when you think about it.

Steven Boone
I am going to whip out what some will inevitably call the race card to describe the power of the White House scenes as I, a black man, experienced them. These episodes weren’t about historical accuracy so much as about the psychology of a workplace in a segregated, white supremacist society. They have much in common with that discreetly alarming moment in Spielberg-Kushner’s Lincoln in which a female servant casually recalls being beaten with a shovel. It’s about the proverbial “Two Americas” existing in the same room. I’ll have to see the film again to be sure, but, viewed in this context, I think even JFK’s pieties might ring hollow by design..?

Katey Rich
I completely see what you mean there, and I think that contrast comes across especially well in one scene you mentioned, when Daniels cross-cuts between Cecil setting the table for a fancy state dinner and his son participating in a lunch-counter sit-in. But aside from the handful of scenes where we see Cecil agitate for equal pay for the White House workers, the script and Daniels never seem to come up with a satisfying way to make this character, who is trained to be invisible, an engaging presence. You get Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz providing personality and occasionally pointing out the film’s themes, but Cecil is largely a passive witness—obviously historically accurate, but not something the character ever compensates for when off the job. Whitaker, admirably, doesn’t amp up his performance to make up for it, but he also doesn’t capture that fascinating contrast between white and black, servant and boss, as well as the movie needed him to.

Steven Boone
From the race card to sheer heresy: Whitaker is like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, a mostly mute witness to historical travesties until one decisive moment of action. More specifically, he’s a dud because he felt that any overt flash of passion or purpose could get him killed, just as his father was murdered just for opening his mouth to say something that might have been in protest to his wife’s rape. Cecil is having lifelong PTSD, with a pinch of Proper Negro Fatigue.

Katey Rich
His inaction makes him a more interesting contrast to his son, it’s true, but I still find the idea of Cecil as “the invisible man” more interesting intellectually than in watching the actual film, which leaves that idea mostly below the surface. I think Daniels is interested in things like Proper Negro Fatigue (what a great phrase) and even the generational contrast between Cecil and his kids who feel bolder and more capable of taking action. But there’s a whooooooole lot going on in The Butler that is constantly distracts from that. Like disco jumpsuits. And 80s sweatsuits! And Terrence Howard flirting with Oprah and Liev Schreiber on the toilet and… well, now we’re back into the camp.

Steven Boone
I love it! It’s like the John Waters film Pecker, which is about as campy and goofy as a film gets while offering some very rich observations about art world hype and the kind of everyday beauty a “serious” artist like Diane Arbus was invested in. Of course, the clash is a lot sharper than in even Waters, where most everything is so gaudy that there isn’t much tangible seriousness to clash against. And don’t get me started in on the Russ Meyer comparisons. (Admittedly, defending this film using past masters of pulp and camp might not be the strongest approach.)

Katey Rich
I hope that Lee Daniels hears from more people like you who adore him for his camp (and please do see The Paperboy, which is all of these elements cranked up to 11). And I hope that maybe he’ll make a historical film about something a little less fraught than the Civil Rights movement where he can really let his freak flag fly. But especially when there are so damn few movies about the Panthers or the Freedom Riders, it seems a shame to me that Lee Daniels and his half-prestige, half-camp mish-mash gets to be the big $100 million success.

Steven Boone
I defend the “unserious” likes of Lee Daniels and Quentin Tarantino because the real travesty is not what they’ve done with their opportunity to address history but that, yes, there ARE so few movies about the Panthers, the Freedom Riders, slavery and Jim Crow. These are subjects that should have become voluminous genres like the Western or film noir. The success of historical lampoons like Django Unchained and The Butler might just insure that bottom-line Ho’wood agrees to pick up more films on similar themes and subject matter. It will be up to the individual filmmakers to figure out how much sober analysis and how much (if any) freak flag to include. Then we won’t have Lee Daniels to kick around anymore.

Katey Rich
I wouldn’t dream of kicking around Lee Daniels—he’s way too interesting and weird a filmmaker to want to be rid of him, and I’m still happier his version of The Butler exists than, say, Ron Howard’s. Points for creativity and for getting Oprah to say “low-class trifling bitch,” but I’d rather see Daniels take on a story free from “serious” history and more certain in its own weird goals.

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