‘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

Jasper Johns aide admits stealing, selling artwork for…

By Joseph AxNEW YORK (Reuters) - A former assistant to renowned American contemporary artist Jasper Johns pleaded guilty on Wednesday to selling nearly two dozen…

National

Sister of accused Boston Marathon bombers arrested for…

The sister of the accused Boston Marathon bombers was arrested in New York City for threatening a woman over the phone, saying she could "put a bomb on you," police…

Local

Mayor announces public housing improvements

Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke at the Lincoln Houses in East Harlem on Wednesday, calling for the scaffolding to come down at NYCHA complexes across…

National

Peter Theo Curtis: American released by Syrian militants…

An American writer freed this week from two years in the captivity of insurgents in Syria spoke briefly outside his family's Cambridge home Wednesday of…

Television

'So You Think You Can Dance' recap: Season…

Season 11’s top four dancers gave their final performances before America’s Favorite Dancers are announced next week.

Going Out

Labor Day in NYC: Make the last weekend…

Soon, it’ll be time for wool accessories and knee-high boots. Even the Pumpkin Spice Latte has already arrived — but we still have one last…

Going Out

Things to do this week in NYC, Aug.…

MUSIC The Electric Zoo Festival Aug. 29-31, 1 p.m. Randall’s Island Park $99-$369, www.electriczoofestival.com The electronic music celebration returns for a fifth year, with 150,000 attendees…

Going Out

5 things to do this weekend in NYC

The Electric Zoo Festival Aug. 29-31, 1 p.m. Randall’s Island Park $99-$369, www.electriczoofestival.com The electronic music celebration returns for a fifth year, with 150,000 attendees expected. David Guetta,…

NFL

Mario Manningham on the bubble as Giants play…

Former Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham hopes his second go-around with Big Blue doesn’t end with Saturday’s final cut day.

NFL

Source: Stephen Hill 'faces a battle' to make…

A team source says Stephen Hill, who has battled injuries and poor performances during his first two years, is no lock to make the Jets’ final roster.

Sports

Serena Williams leaving legacy of talented American women…

It seems only a matter of when, not if, Serena Williams will win her 18th career grand slam championship.

College

When are 2014 college football playoffs? (Schedule, date,…

When and where are 2014 college football playoffs? A look at the schedule, date, TV, time for the semi-finals at championship game.

Style

Trend: White hot on the 2014 Emmy's red…

White was one of the big trends on the Emmy's red carpet.

Food

Recipe: Samuel Adams beer-marinated grilled shrimp

Summer calls for two things: a cold beer and light food. Sam Adams' Latitude 48 IPA fairly bursts with citrus notes, making it an ideal marinade…

Wellbeing

4 healthy ingredient swaps to make your meals…

When it comes to eating well, everyone knows they could be doing better. But cooking in an apartment on a busy schedule is a recipe…

Wellbeing

Heart trumps brain when it comes to movies…

When you need a good cry, do you reach for the movie that’s “based on a true story”? Science says you’re giving your brain far…