Forrest Gump may have been referring to life and boxes of chocolates when he remarked that “you never know what you’re gonna get”, but he could just have easily been talking about the films of Lee Daniels.
Following the little-seen crime thriller Shadowboxer (in which Helen Mirren stars as a contract killer – RED doesn’t seem so odd now), Daniels broke out with the rough and tough Precious before going completely off the reservation with 2012’s tawdry slice of American gothic The Paperboy.
The wild excesses and craziness of The Paperboy have been reigned in and sanitised with his latest offering, The Butler, loosely based on the true story of long-serving White House butler Eugene Allen.
The Forrest Gump analogy works on another level also, as The Butler is reminiscent of that film’s decade-spanning central character who finds himself brushing shoulders with America’s most powerful and influential figures. However, whilst Forrest’s encounters were largely down to fortuitous timing and dumb luck, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) becomes part of the fabric of the White House over the course of seven presidencies.
The film charts Cecil’s life from a brutal upbringing on a Georgia cotton farm in the 1920s, in which his father is murdered and his mother raped by the plantation’s sociopathic owner, through to his training as a servant which leads to him being employed as a butler at the White House in 1957 under Dwight D Eisenhower. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue becomes a second home for Cecil, much to the chagrin of his devoted, but frustrated wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey). Meanwhile, Cecil’s eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes a committed civil rights campaigner, while his other son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) chooses to fight in Vietnam.
The Butler feels like a movie pulling in several different directions, with Daniels never quite sure which way to go. One minute it’s a sweeping historical epic, the next a hard-hitting depiction of the civil rights movement, while a minute later it’s a tear-jerking relationship drama between father and son.
Its opening scenes are a difficult watch and suggest a possible explanation as to why Cecil is so averse to speaking out or picking a fight as an adult. The film is at its strongest when dealing directly with the civil rights movement, which it does in an angry and harrowing way by portraying the shameful physical and verbal abuse meted out to those brave enough to smash through the petty racism that still existed in much of the South.
Oyelowo does an excellent job as Louis, who risks his life and being ostracised from his father to fight for a more enlightened America, but only through peaceful means. His journey is arguably the most compelling in the film and it’s to Oyelowo’s credit that he doesn’t give in to Oscar-grabbing temptation.
Winfrey is also wonderful as Gloria, a complex character who dearly loves her husband but makes mistakes of judgement that etch themselves on her face. It’s performances like these that make you wish she’d spend less time interviewing people and more in front of the camera for different reasons.
As Gary Oldman so memorably proved in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the hardest performances to pull off are the ones that are dialled down almost to zero and Whitaker is similarly restrained as the ghost-like Cecil. Taught early on to silently blend into the background in order to become a successful butler, Cecil goes about his everyday business with the utmost professionalism while presidents come and go and the world moves on around him.
Despite being the headquarters of a world superpower, Daniels shows that very little actually changes within the White House, be it the Downton Abbey-esque stately formality or the attitudes among some senior White House staff towards the black servants.
A gamut of stars portray the various presidents, with the most notable being John Cusack’s clammy and paranoid turn as Nixon (including a slightly comical prosthetic nose) and Alan Rickman’s uncanny take on Ronald Regan.
Each president appears only briefly on camera, which lends weight to the argument that The Butler would probably have worked better as a mini-series. With so much to squeeze in, the film inevitably feels rushed and softens its impact as a result.
Daniels should be congratulated for bringing a serious film to the big screen about the long and arduous journey African-Americans took before a black president finally occupied the White House, but in trying to tick too many boxes and pull in too may directions The Butler only serves to weaken its message.