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.
Daniels and his screenwriter Danny Strong have taken the true story of White House butler Eugene Allen and turned it into a historical pageant about the struggle for civil rights, in which one man—the butler, here named Cecil Gaines—represents the notion of accommodating the white majority while another embodies confrontation. Because of this movie’s almost unimaginable vulgarity, Gaines’s antagonist is—natch—his own son, Louis.
Cecil (Forest Whitaker) is taught by life to go along with the whims and desires of white people. As a boy in 1920s Georgia, he watches his mother get raped and his father shot by the crazy owner of the land on which they are sharecropping. He is then brought into the owner’s home—as a bizarre act of kindness—to learn how to serve the man who killed his father.
He flees as a teenager and, starving, breaks into a hotel to get food. Instead of getting arrested, Cecil is taken under the wing of a kindly worker (Clarence Williams III, the terrific and tragically underused onetime star of The Mod Squad), who teaches him more about being a servant and then gets him a job at a Washington hotel. He does so well as an invisible, uncontroversial, unchallenging presence that he’s spotted by a White House household executive and hired to work as a butler at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Every time Cecil walks into the Oval Office, he overhears a snatch of conversation about Little Rock, or Selma, or Birmingham; John F. Kennedy informs Cecil that his heart has changed, while Ronald Reagan (in the movie’s most out-and-out ludicrous scene) says to him, “The whole civil-rights thing—sometimes I think I’m just wrong.” Cecil gives away nothing, even though he lives through everything.
Meanwhile, Cecil’s son Louis desegregates a lunch counter, becomes a Freedom Rider, is with Martin Luther King at the motel in Memphis, becomes a Black Panther, leaves the Black Panthers, becomes a college professor, runs for Congress and loses, becomes an activist, and becomes a congressman. And all he does, throughout the movie, is insult Cecil.
This makes no sense dramatically. Cecil is a kind man and a good father, and Whitaker, in a beautiful performance, gives him a dignified gravity at all times. The abuse Cecil suffers from his son, and his son’s utter lack of respect for his worthy father, is inexplicable if you are interested in these people as characters who might actually behave the way real people do. Daniels and Strong are not. They finally show some disapproval for Louis when he comes home after seven years and enrages Cecil by calling Sidney Poitier an Uncle Tom. But the scene is utterly unbelievable.
There are some good scenes along the way, just so long as they don’t involve Louis or the White House. The domestic discord between Cecil and his wife Gloria (Winfrey) is sad and powerful, and the depiction of middle-class black life in Washington in the 1950s and ’60s is rich and vivid. They are the only moments in the movie in which Daniels stops ramming his theme down our throats, and they come as a great relief.
But what do I know, compared to Daniels? He’s become a brand name after only five films because of his caricaturish view of the world. And me? Is this part of the magazine called John Podhoretz’s The Movie Review? No, it isn’t. Case closed. If this review were a movie directed by Lee Daniels, it would be called Lee Daniels’ Lee Daniels Wins.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.