Has there ever been a more melodramatic director than Lee Daniels? The man screams out movies at the top of his lungs. Even the titling of his films becomes an occasion for histrionics. In 2009, he made a movie called Push, only to discover there was a science-fiction film with the same name. So he retitled it—and oh, how he retitled it. It became Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire.
He began by weeping over the loss of his original title and the damage it did to his selfless effort to bring a supposedly central work of African-American literature to the screen. Then he incorporated the name of the novel and the writer’s name into the title, and in so doing, Daniels struck public relations gold. The ginned-up controversy provoked articles well in advance of the movie’s release and elevated its profile both with art-house audiences and African Americans. The movie was a sensation in its opening weeks. Precious: BOTNPBS ended up with six Oscar nominations, and won two.
The same thing just happened with his new film, originally titled The Butler. We’re told that Warner Bros. objected to the use of the title because it had released a 1916 film of the same name; by doing so, the studio mysteriously compelled Daniels and the Weinstein Company to change their title, even though there have been plenty of movies that shared the same names over the past century without any such trouble.
This rather suspicious controversy produced news stories similar to the ones that preceded the release of Precious. Daniels and executive producer Harvey Weinstein wrote lachrymose letters about the central importance of the words “The Butler” to their entire project. Finally, they hit upon a solution: They would call it Lee Daniels’ The Butler! Obviously, this was good for the movie, and especially good for Daniels himself. He is hardly a household word, especially since his last movie, the unbelievably godawful The Paperboy, barely got released last year. And yet here he is now, not only above the title but within it, like the superstar African-American writer-director-actor-producer Tyler Perry.
Daniels is, without question, a master at pop-culture public relations, and he must be a very convincing person altogether. He somehow talked Nicole Kidman into urinating on Zac Efron as part of the action of The Paperboy, thus garnering the movie the only controversy it could ever possibly generate. He also convinced the comedian Mo’Nique and the singer Mariah Carey to act in Precious. These were inspired strokes of casting, as Mo’Nique won a well-deserved supporting actress Oscar and Carey erased the memory of her horrible turn in the notorious Glitter (2001) with a jewel of a performance as an exhausted but caring social worker.
Daniels also scored the participation of his friend Oprah Winfrey (the “presenter” of Precious) in The Butler, her first turn on the screen in 15 years. She’s very good in it, and she has been very good for it. She also managed to go out and stir up a fuss about how she was supposedly mistreated in a racial manner by a shopgirl in Switzerland who tried to steer her toward a handbag that didn’t cost $40,000—thus generating headlines for three days just as The Butler was about to be released. The movie made $25 million in its opening weekend, twice what it was predicted to make. So what if a Swiss shopgirl was slandered? This is Lee Daniels’ The Butler we’re talking about here!
What is it we’re talking about, anyway? The movie itself is schematic, it’s nonsensical, it’s hysterical, it conflates eras and political moments, it has 60-year-olds playing 30-year-olds and 35-year-olds playing 15-year-olds. It has Robin Williams playing Dwight Eisenhower. By any conventional reckoning of what a good movie is, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is just awful. And yet there’s no denying it—this atrocity is an enormous crowd-pleaser and is going to be a huge hit.
The story is ludicrous and overwrought, but Daniels films it in a consciously grand, classical, and somber style—almost entirely the opposite of the incredibly lurid tone and spirit of both Precious and The Paperboy. This was a canny choice, since it somehow succeeds in masking the preposterousness at every turn.