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<i>Lee Daniels’ The Butler:</i> The Times They Are A-Changin’

It was roughly an hour into Lee Daniels' The Butler (as I'm apparently legally obligated to call the movie) when I realized that we had only just met the second of the seven U.S. presidents that the title character was going to serve in his capacity as a White House butler and my heart started to sink just a little bit. There wasn't anything specific happening onscreen in that moment that inspired that reaction -- not a tone-deaf performance, a flat line of dialogue or a questionable directing choice. It was more the dawning realization that we still had two decades and six presidents left to go on this noble, reverent and altogether tedious march through the second half of 20th century American history, with a specific emphasis on the Civil Rights movement. And as vital as that story remains and as important it is for present and future generations to remember the many sacrifices that were made on our behalf by so many brave men and women, watching that piece of history being dramatized in such a plodding, superficial manner left me with the same eyes-glazing-over boredom that I used to experience when reading a particularly dry high school textbook.

Although Lee Daniels' name is part of the title, The Butler probably should have been called Danny Strong's The Butler based on its overall aesthetic. As any self-respecting old-school WB fan knows, Danny Strong was an appealing guest star on some of that network's best shows (specifically Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls), who has since gone on to a successful, award-winning career as the writer behind the HBO political dramas Recount (about the Great Florida Election Disaster of 2000) and Game Change (about the epic McCain/Palin Campaign Disaster of 2008). It's always a pleasure to see Strong pop up onscreen and good on him for adding a couple Emmys to his shelf, but I'm not a huge fan of the approach to screenwriting he's demonstrated thus far, which seems to amount to cutting and pasting information gleaned from newspaper articles, book excerpts and Wikipedia entries and assembling it into a chronological sequence of events in which the characters take a backseat to the forward pull of history. (Here's hoping his current stint adapting the final Hunger Games novel Mockingjay to the screen will cure him of that bad habit.) Recount, Game Change and now The Butler are all movies where the dialogue sounds more akin to term-paper ready bullet points than conversations real people might actually have with each other. His scripts recite the historical record without illuminating it in any substantial way.

If there was ever a screenplay that might benefit from Daniels' peculiar directorial touch -- one that celebrates melodramatic excess for good (Precious) and ill (The Paperboy) -- it's this one. Perhaps the sheer weight of history crushed his nerve, because stylistically, this is the most straightforward film Daniels has ever made, which will no doubt come as a relief to his harshest critics, but makes the finished product a heck of a lot less interesting. The one area where he does bring his influence to bear is his eccentric casting choices. I'm not talking so much about Forest Whitaker, who is a natural pick to play White House butler Cecil Gaines -- who goes from a poverty-stricken childhood in the Deep South to serving eight different U.S. Presidents between 1957 to 1987 -- and remains compellingly watchable even when the material is wafer-thin. (Cecil is a fictionalized stand-in for Eugene Allen, whose own life and career in the presidential manor inspired the film.) And rising star David Oyelowo is another rock-solid choice as Louis Gaines, Cecil's son and heir, who rejects his father's career path and becomes an active foot soldier in the battle for Civil Rights. That father/son conflict provides The Butler with what little dramatic juice it has and the two actors play it with conviction, even if they can't single-handedly render it completely fresh.

On the hand, another director probably wouldn't have thought to tap Lenny Kravitz as another White House staff member, Mariah Carey as the wife of a poor black sharecropper or, best of all, Oprah Winfrey herself as Cecil's not-always-faithful wife, Gloria. While Winfrey's makeover isn't quite as thorough as, say, Mo'Nique's in Precious, she sheds her "Oprah" persona more easily than you might expect, delivering a performance that's quite subtle and well-observed. And then there are the unlikely faces playing the various Presidents who come and go from Cecil's place of employ, from Robin Williams's distracted Eisenhower to James Marsden's handsome, but empty Kennedy to Liev Schreiber's hilariously gruff Johnson to John Cusack's hammy Nixon to Alan Rickman's spot-on Reagan. (The Ford and Carter administrations are both fast-forwarded through and Cecil retires before the arrival of Bush the First, which sadly means we don't get to see, say, Dan Aykroyd's Bill Clinton or Steve Buscemi's Dubya.)

If only the rest of the movie took some of the same creative risks as the casting department! What's missing from The Butler aren't good performance, solid production values and an obvious respect for history -- it's the ability to make that history seem vital, to make it matter through rich characterizations and a nuanced narrative that goes beyond a mere checklist of facts. Granted, Daniels does stage isolated moments where the full humiliation and horror of the "way things used to be" is brought to bear, particularly in one unnerving sequence in which Louis and his fellow college students stage a sit-in in a Tennessee diner. Overall though, this summer's Fruitvale Station offers a more complex and provocative depiction of how far we've come in terms of race relations in America and how much further we still have to go, particularly in relation to the way society at large views young black men. Whatever it's flaws (and it does have them), that movie gets audiences talking and, more importantly, feeling. This one primarily inspires polite silence.

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