It’s not unusual for a movie to divide reviewers. To some, The Butler, Lee Daniels’ sprint through the American civil rights movement, is “deeply moving” (Time), “brilliantly truthful” (The New York Times), “illuminating” (New York), and “honest” (Slate). But it’s also been -dismissed as “obvious,” “over-the-top,” “clunky,” “lumbering,” and “thuggish”—by the very same critics. Daniels, who won acclaim for Precious and contempt for The Paperboy, has a unique ability to stir admiration and antipathy at once; if there were a word to describe the act of applauding while wincing, he could copyright it.
Daniels is a gay African-American filmmaker, so nobody should be surprised that his idea of a prestige picture isn’t the same as, say, Tom Hooper’s. He came of age in the 1970s, when most filmmakers of his generation steeped themselves in Coppola and Scorsese. Daniels may have joined them, but as I watched The Butler, I felt that what really shaped his taste was the other 1970s, the one we’re not supposed to revere.
The Butler is energized by the language of long-disrespected ’70s genres—disaster movies, high-gloss miniseries, and sitcoms like Good Times and Sanford and Son that allowed white America to see black characters talking to one another. You can feel the DNA of irresistible schlock like Airport 1975, which was unembarrassed about putting Gloria Swanson, Linda Blair, and Helen Reddy on a jumbo jet together, in the gleeful way in which Daniels deploys his all-star cast. He has no problem imagining that Mariah Carey and Vanessa Redgrave might be found in the same early-20th-century Southern cotton field, and he understands that even though it is willful lunacy to ask Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda to play Ronald and Nancy Reagan, the chance to watch them try is part of the fun of going to movies.
The Butler’s pin-the-tail-on-the–donkey casting choices are akin to the all-aboard style of ’70s TV epics, in which actors as incongruous as The Brady Bunch’s Robert Reed and The Addams Family’s Carolyn Jones might turn up in Roots with wigs, silly accents, and game faces. Daniels draws from Roots’ dash-through-the-decades approach, which demonstrated that even a sketchy narrative can be profoundly stirring, and also from the structure of the 1979 miniseries Backstairs at the White House, which followed African-American servants through presidential administrations from Taft to Eisenhower (where The Butler begins). And in Daniels’ love for transformative old-age makeup (Oprah Wrinkly!), you can feel the impact of the 1974 TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, an epochal moment in the medium and in black pop culture.
That’s not typical inspirational material for a director, and if you’ve seen The Butler, you know it’s a weird movie. It does things wrong. Its relaxed, unforced scenes of African-American comradeship and quarrel alternate with heavily signposted and sometimes waxen Important Moments in History, as the film tries to sew 50 years of struggle onto one -butler’s not-quite-long-enough coattails. Daniels is addicted to climax—he rushes from outrage to joke to tearjerk to horror to throat lump, and his story reaches an emotional peak not during the lunch-counter sit-ins or the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., but in a bow to the power of movies, when two generations of a black family get into a fight about Sidney Poitier. (In a sweet nod to In the Heat of the Night, the scene ends with a seismic slap.) Daniels himself is shameless about slapping a reaction out of you; he’s evidently not a director who ever thinks, “Maybe I shouldn’t.” That’s fine with me. I can think of some filmmakers with more finesse who might benefit from his willingness to court scorn in the service of rousing emotion. The Butler is a big, messy, lurching American movie made the way you’re not supposed to make one, out of undervalued cultural castoffs. It shouldn’t work. It doesn’t work. It works.