‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ is unexpectedly complex — and crazy

Hey, it's Robin Williams as Eisenhower (opposite Forest Whittaker) in "Lee Daniels' The Butler." Credit: The Weinstein Company
Hey, it’s Robin Williams as Eisenhower (opposite Forest Whittaker) in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”
Credit: The Weinstein Company

‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’
Director: Lee Daniels
Stars: Forest Whittaker, Oprah Winfrey
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

A bizarre copyright lawsuit has forced the makers of “The Butler” to put director Lee Daniels’ name in the title. The irony is that it’s the least Lee Daniels movie of the four he’s directed. Plowing through the career of Cecil (Forest Whittaker), an African American who served as Butler from Eisenhower (Robin Williams!) to Reagan (Alan Rickman!!), it’s not crazy like past Daniels. (Certain casting choices aside.) It’s more distinguishable as the work of Danny Strong, the screenwriter who reduced the presidential elections of 2000 (“Recount”) and 2008 (“Game Change”) into dubious HBO movie entertainments.

Strong’s script is similarly reductive in some ways yet, rather unexpectedly, less reductive in ways that actually count. Despite being a look at civil rights and race relations written by a white guy, this isn’t a history lesson made to comfort white liberals. It doesn’t even have a soothing, readymade message. It’s a dialectic, exploring two warring approaches to race relations — not from the white side, but among African Americans.

In one corner is Whittaker’s Cecil. He has decided the way to change things is quietly and subversively from within. In the other corner is Louis (David Oyelowo), Cecil’s son, who comes of age during the era of sit-ins. He believes in activism (if not the violent kind), and father and son clash mightily over their contradictory tactics to achieve the same goal.

This is in no way subtle, but the key is that it doesn’t pick a side. There are times when Cecil’s approach seems more appropriate, and times when it seems ineffective, even foolish. Ditto Louis’ side. Ultimately thesis and antithesis form a wobbly synthesis, at which point the film collapses. But it’s refreshing to see a blunt history lesson embrace complexity at all.

Also importantly, this is still at least somewhat a Lee Daniels picture, which is a good thing. Daniels is a refreshingly sloppy, often crazy filmmaker, whose “prestige” picture (“Precious”) is frothing mad in look and feel. Here he’s restrained, particularly compared to the absurdly lurid “The Paperboy” — but not that restrained. Only Daniels would think to cast John Cusack as Nixon (or “Hanoi” Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan), though he makes himself known in more productive ways in the forcefulness of the protest set pieces. A sit-in scene in a diner has a real force, even for a sit-in scene, while the more crazy side of Daniels can be found in any scene where Oprah Winfrey, as Cecil’s long-suffering wife, gets drunk and rants or dances to “Soul Train.” Daniels is a reckless director, but he’s the perfect person to loosen up a script that can be as stiff as it is smart.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

Tattooed, bearded suspect sought in Williamsburg bike theft:…

The suspected thief faces grand larceny charges after investigators said he entered the building on North 5th Street in Williamsburg.

Local

Report: Rich New Yorkers don't move from NYC…

An Independent Budget Office analysis found that the wealthiest residents don't move out of the city any more or less than other New Yorkers.

National

Pioneers for domestic violence push on

Reporter was commissioned to write this in-depth article. Two decades have passed since the O.J. Simpson trial captivated the country. But in the 20 years…

Local

Food truck with a mission hires at-risk New…

A group branding itself as food trucks for social justice specifically hires and trains young men and women with troubled pasts.

Television

Olivia Williams explains the ins and outs of…

Olivia Williams plays a botanist beginning to suspect her physicist husband's work on the Manhattan Project might be ominous in WGN America's "Manhattan."

Movies

Scarlett Johansson on 'Lucy':' 'I guess I’m the…

Scarlett Johansson continues her foray into action movies with thriller “Lucy”, admitting it’s been an unexpected adventure.

Movies

Review: Liking Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'…

Woody Allen's latest, "Magic in the Moonlight," concerns a magician (Colin Firth) trying to debunk an alleged psychic (Emma Stone).

Movies

Piano from 'Casablanca' up for sale at auction

An iconic piano featured in Rick's Cafe Americain in the 1942 Hollywood classic "Casablanca" is expected to be the highlight of a sale of film…

NFL

5 players to watch at Giants training camp

Metro takes a look at five players who will be on everyone’s mind when Giants training camp gets underway.

NFL

'Vicktory dogs' travel road to rehabilitation seven years…

Of the dozens of dogs groomed by Bad Newz Kennels, 48 were rescued and 22 of the pit bull terriers have emerged at Best Friends Animal Society.

MLB

Yankees looking at trade for Cliff Lee, according…

Yankees looking at trade for Cliff Lee, according to report

NFL

Giants lineman Chris Snee to retire: Reports

The Giants report to training camp on Tuesday, but Chris Snee may not be there when they do.

Parenting

Buy gently worn back-to-school clothes with Kidizen

Kidizen allows parents to buy and sell gently worn back-to-school clothes.

Wellbeing

Ruling could be beginning of the end for…

This morning, a federal appeals court threw out an IRS regulation that implements subsidies for low-income Americans who bought insurance through Obamacare. These Affordable Care…

Tech

RocketSkates let users roll with a motor

Los Angeles company Acton has raised funds on Kickstarter to roll out a nifty alternative – motor-powered "RocketSkates."

Tech

Knicks star Carmelo Anthony becomes a tech entrepreneur

He's been an All-Star, an Olympian, and a celebrity spokesperson. Now NBA player Carmelo Anthony is adding the position "tech entrepreneur" to his resume. Along…