Daniels certainly tries. The director of “Precious” (2009) and last year’s gleefully awful “The Paperboy,” Daniels trails Cecil through his near-slave childhood, a civil rights movement that impassions one son (David Oyelowo), a Vietnam War that draws in another (Elijah Kelley) and an election that results in the first African American president.
What the film never settles on is a point of view: Is the subservience that makes Cecil a success as a butler (“You hear nothing; you see nothing; you only serve,” he’s told early on at the White House) something to be admired or decried? Is Cecil someone, as a character in the film points out, who by virtue of being hardworking and trustworthy defies racial stereotypes and advances his people? No, his powerlessness, ultimately, is something shameful.
But even as Daniels strains to emphasize the impotence Cecil feels, as he watches cavalier decisions about black men being made by white men, the director can’t resist the commercial impulse to make Cecil a hero. And you can’t quite have it both ways without making a movie with a personality disorder.
On “Precious,” Daniels was working from an Oscar-winning script by Geoffrey Fletcher, but here he has a rather pedestrian screenplay by Danny Strong, who scripted the TV movies “Recount,” about the 2000 election, and “Game Change,” about the 2008 election. “It’s his world, we’re just living in it,” Cecil’s father tells the boy (really?). In an exchange with his own son, Louis (Oyelowo), whose Black Pantherism is yanking dad’s chain, Cecil actually says, “I brought you into this world and I can send you out of it” — a line usually ascribed to Bill Cosby, who does not appear among the credits.
In addition to a standout performance by Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s likably edgy, sometimes boozy wife, there are several moments of cagey insight. One involves Cecil, pre-White House, working at Washington’s Excelsior Hotel and suffering through a customer’s virulently racist rant about school desegregation. “Never in my life,” Cecil says on voiceover, “did I dream I’d work in a place as fancy as this.” There’s no irony to the statement, just compartmentalization and denial. And it’s a moment that really stings.
Cecil’s overlords — those eight presidents under whom he serves — include Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams), whom Cecil expects to help his people and doesn’t; John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), who does, despite being a few inches shorter than we remember; John Cusack’s Richard M. Nixon, who, during some Watergate moments, looks less like the late president than he does Orson Welles in “Touch of Evil”; and Alan Rickman’s Ronald Reagan, who looks right but sounds wrong.
The aforementioned Fonda is pretty much on point, but overall there’s very little effort made to transform actors physically or audibly into the people they’re supposed to be impersonating. Liev Schreiber isn’t short, for instance, but neither is he tall enough for Lyndon B. Johnson, and his Texas accent sounds like it might have originated at the southern end of Central Park. It’s all stunt casting, intended for cheap, quick laughs, and doesn’t help a movie whose campaign already lacks a certain focus.
Anderson is a freelance film critic in New York.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some violence and disturbing images, strong language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.
The original article that inspired the movie: A butler well served by the election
Post TV interview with Washington Post writer Wil Haygood
Essay: “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” finally puts the civil rights movement on screen; others will follow
From The Post magazine: Forest, Oprah and me
Gallery: A look at the star-studded cast of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”