He’s had mixed reviews throughout his career, but is The Butler director Lee Daniels a covert auteur?
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is an overtly accessible political film about a hard-working, apolitical black butler named Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) working and serving the presidents in the White House from 1952-1984. The film bears witness to the changes in the social and political landscape of the USA; most notably, and, unsurprisingly, it focuses on racial tension.
It’s only now that audiences are rediscovering the poorly received Shadowboxer, Daniels’ debut, and viewing it for what it was
The Butler has been accused by a number of cynics as being like Forrest Gump Goes to The White House, and been criticised for its black and white (no pun intended) approach to Republicans (racists!) and Democrats (liberals!). The story of the real butler the film takes its inspiration from, Eugene Allen, is vastly different and not as heavy-handed in politics (Allen only had one son, who wouldn’t grow up to join the Black Panthers). I’m here to not only defend The Butler as being an important film that everyone should watch, but also to support Lee Daniels’ work on the whole. Let’s begin with Daniels’ work leading up to The Butler.
Daniels’ first film, Shadowboxer, was poorly received upon initial release and it’s apparent as to why. Featuring unflinchingly damaged characters working in their own moral code, it uses uneasy subject matters like terminal illness, psychological abuse and relationship distrust and sets them in a hollow criminal underworld. That hollow nature is part of Shadowboxer’s charm and interest. It’s only since the later release of The Paperboy and Precious that audiences are now finding this terribly overlooked little gem and viewing it for what it was.
Daniels’ second movie, Precious, is regarded as one of the most depressing films of all time for its unashamed portrayal of incest and domestic abuse, set amongst the underclass of the American urban city. With a tremendous performance from Mo’Nique as damaged mother Mary (her speech justifying her actions to the social worker is one of the most harrowing in American cinema history) and Daniels’ unabashed style making us feel the greasy cramped apartment and the impoverished surroundings, it reminds us that Hollywood is willing to take risks.
Like Precious, the humid The Paperboy was willing to peep into the decadent side of America
Following this was the criminally overlooked The Paperboy. Again, like Precious, The Paperboy was willing to peep into the decadent side of America, only this time it was set in the humid Deep South of the 1960s. It followed the recent trend of placing Matthew McConaughey in unsavoury roles, but it also placed others in roles outside of their comfort zone, a trick Daniels has used throughout his films.
Precious had Mariah Carey as a stressed, dishevelled social worker, and Mo’Nique as an aggressively depressed mother; The Paperboy had Zac Efron as a sexually frustrated racist, Matthew McConaughey as a BDSM-loving closet homosexual, and John Cusack as a murderous and emotionally abusive redneck; The Butler has Oprah Winfrey as an adulterous alcoholic. Daniels has chosen individuals closely linked to more applicable roles and subverts them to make the atmosphere of his films more tense.
So how does The Butler work alongside Daniels’ previous films? Does its simplified approach work? The Butler is accessible – it does take major artistic liberties with its source material and can be viewed as preachy, but I’d argue it’s all justifiable. Firstly, the film takes inspiration and is not an adaptation of Eugene Allen’s life, unlike other “true story” films (like Argo).
Lee Daniels is clearly socially and politically astute, but doesn’t feel the need to amplify this in every production
The Butler uses Eugene Allen’s story to serve as a basis for its vision. Secondly, the easy accessibility strengthens the movie, for it raises interesting arguments and points about American society that many should consider. It has been accused of using broad strokes, but the film doesn’t offer clear solutions. It posits these issues to the viewer for them to ponder. By making The Butler as widely accessible, it means that many demographics will be exposed to the same queries, queries that aren’t always just for high art cinemagoers.
Lee Daniels is clearly socially and politically astute, but doesn’t feel the need to amplify this in every production. Shadowboxer was a quasi-experimental gangster film and The Paperboy was an original crime thriller. Precious was a social drama and The Butler was a political one, but both were from a different perspective. This diversity is just one of the things that makes Daniels one of the most interesting filmmakers working in Hollywood today.
Featured image: The Weinstein Company
Inset images: Teton Films; Millenium Films