After the horribly misjudged Precious (2009) and the bizarre sideshow that was The Paperboy (2013), it’s a pleasant surprise to see Lee Daniels managing to deliver a half-decent picture. The odds were heavily stacked against The Butler (2013) from the beginning; the aforementioned cinematic shooting gallery, not to mention a premise that reeked of “worthy” Oscar baiting. Daniels’ lack of self-awareness (see his insufferably self-assured award season campaign for Precious) actually works in his favour here, letting the director’s emotions run and resulting in a work that has fire in its belly beneath the shiny surface.
Not only is there a sense of anger at the appalling treatment of African-Americans throughout US history, but there’s also a moving portrayal of a father and a son at odds over political ideals. It’s a passionate work which, though flawed, is a significant leap forward for Daniels. We follow the story of Cecil Gains (Forest Whitaker), who served as the White House butler under eight presidents. Gains witnessed their key decisions during the most important historical events of the century, including Vietnam and the Nixon impeachment crisis. The Butler is at its best when it explores the confluence of ideologies in pursuit of the same cause, and at its most touching when it weaves this in with a conflict between a father and his son.
Gains toes the line, quietly influencing history using his unwavering patriotism and work ethic to gain the trust of successive presidents. He places faith in the system, partly as a result of optimism and partly as a product of the fear of his own secondary status in the country. His son Louis (David Oyelowo), on the other hand, believes in change through force; joining the Black Panthers and taking part in sit-ins that took place as part of the civil rights movement. Daniels allows both approaches to dovetail; he sees the advantages and disadvantages of both, combining the certainty of hindsight with the fiery passion of impulse. In this respect, his thesis feels mature, considered and, crucially, heartfelt.
There’s a real anger that burns brightly at The Butler’s core. Oyelowo’s Louis is like a subverted modern version of Voltaire’s Candide, experiencing the misfortunes and injustices of his status first-hand. There’s true rage in these sequences, and Daniels closes them with photographs that drive home the shameful reality; this is still painfully recent American history. His latest may be overlong and prone to the odd slip into schmaltzy territory, but it’s a respectable accomplishment nonetheless, blessed with good performances throughout. It’s certainly pleasing to see Daniels up his game in this way.