In each of the four films he's directed, Lee Daniels has created moments unlike anything else I've seen in American narrative cinema. To list a few examples: There's R&B singer Macy Gray in Shadowboxer (2005), uncomfortably wearing heels and a fancy dress a few sizes too small, trying to break plans with a rich mobster she knows wants her dead, comically slurring, "I'm busy this weekend. I'll be down at the Snooty Fox—it's ladies' night!" There's the abused, impoverished teenager in Precious (2009) improbably watching Vittorio De Sica's Two Women (1960) on TV and imagining herself and her mother in the movie speaking perfect Italian. And there's Gray again in The Paperboy (2012), playing a domestic in late-60s Florida, goofily pantomiming masturbation as part of a role-playing game she plays with the grown son (Zac Efron) of the family she works for, the act registering as innocent and presexual.
What do these moments have in common? For one thing, they all feature some unexpected collision between high and low culture—the former represented by the films' immaculate lighting, production design, and costumes (Shadowboxer, it's worth noting, remains one of the few movies to employ famed designer Vivienne Westwood in its wardrobe department), the latter by the crass dialogue and the actors' broad overplaying. If audiences notice any one of these things above the rest, it tends to be the performances, which can be so flamboyant as to distract from the movies' subtler qualities. Yet this flamboyance is significant, as Daniels's films are fundamentally about acting out. They're also about how society conditions us to repress certain desires, and the consequence of acting on feelings that society deems unacceptable.
Daniels laid out these themes in Shadowboxer, a film that was largely dismissed as camp upon its release but seems more meaningful in light of his subsequent work. The movie's a deeply strange allegory about a taciturn hit man (Cuba Gooding Jr.) living in a professional and sexual partnership with his stepmother (Helen Mirren), who's raised him since he was eight. Inuring himself to sexual abuse, the film implies, has conditioned him to kill without emotion. When his stepmother insists that they not murder a pregnant woman assigned as their mark, they end up taking her in and helping her raise her child. Improbably, the four establish something resembling a happy family life—and one that's apparently blind to differences of age, sex, and race. That this utopian living arrangement is purchased with blood money is the film's greatest irony.
Precious and The Paperboy develop the ideas of Shadowboxer within more realistic contexts, yet they deviate from realism in crucial ways. The Section 8 apartment where the main character of Precious lives is, by the director's admission, an imaginary setting, a composite of New York public housing and the Philadelphia row houses where Daniels grew up. (How many other prominent directors in U.S. cinema today were raised in poverty?) The apartment scenes are full of expressionistic touches—bold lighting, ostentatious camera movements—that separate the film from straightforward social portraiture. Likewise, The Paperboy teems with left-field casting decisions (particularly Nicole Kidman and John Cusack as poor southerners) that bring an air of burlesque to the film's portrait of racial tensions. In both cases, Daniels acknowledges a painful social reality while setting it against some delirious form of artifice. His purpose in this, I think, is not to critique the wish-fulfillment fantasies that movies typically offer, but to recast them according to the fantasies of marginalized subjects, specifically the poor and victims of abuse.
The Butler, which opened last week, feels flagrantly artificial, even cheesy, in its design. The movie is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American man born on a Virginia cotton farm in 1919 who worked his way up the ladder to become head butler at the White House, where he served from the late 50s to the mid-80s. Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong use the overall shape of Allen's life to create a historical epic about the African-American experience of the last 80 or so years, deploying the sort of historical shorthand that's typical of glossy Hollywood biopics. The movie's version of Allen, named Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), bears witness to major policy decisions about civil rights in the administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan. The filmmakers also give him an activist son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who takes part in major episodes of the civil rights struggle—riding on the Freedom Bus that gets bombed in 1962, meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. just before his assassination, and living with the Black Panthers at their Oakland headquarters in the early 1970s.
Many reviews have likened The Butler to Forrest Gump, with which it shares a greatest-hits approach to modern American history. The films differ in a crucial way, however: Where Gump drifts unwittingly through history, Cecil and Louis are keenly aware of their places within it. Louis may be the more active participant, but as the movie often reminds us, Cecil too is playing a role. In an early scene that colors everything that follows, a young Cecil gets advice from an older black man at a hotel where he works. "We all have two faces," the veteran tells him, "our own and the one we wear for the white man." The film equates Cecil's upward mobility with his skill in creating this second face. In addition to scoring a prominent job at the White House, he gives his wife (Oprah Winfrey) and sons the sort of comfortable middle-class life he could have only dreamed of as a field hand.
After introducing Cecil's family, The Butler alternates between intimate scenes of domestic life and sequences of historical pageantry. This model is familiar from countless other American epics, but Daniels consistently defamiliarizes it in characteristically odd ways. Many of the White House scenes are played for laughs, with Cusack, Liev Schreiber, and Alan Rickman playing deliberately exaggerated versions of Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan, respectively. (Robin Williams is no less strange as Eisenhower, since Daniels has the actor muffle his usual expressiveness.) These performances continue in the burlesque vein of The Paperboy, yet none of them is as showstopping as Winfrey's star turn, which Daniels presents like a historic event in itself.
This inversion of the usual domestic-historic dynamic is The Butler's masterstroke. In a probing review for RogerEbert.com, Steven Boone gets at its significance when he writes: "Trained from childhood to be virtually invisible, Cecil is an aloof bumbler in the house, where his wife Gloria is the president." While Daniels instructed Whitaker to convey as little emotion as possible (when I interviewed the actor last month, he explained that Daniels often instructed him to subtract physical expressions from his performance), he gave Winfrey plenty of room to dominate her scenes. Even when sharing recipes with her friends (a spoof on Winfrey's career as a talk show host?), she commands the attention of everyone around her with a mix of bossiness and charm. Cecil's home life reflects his professional life in that he practices the same calculated passivity in both. The movie poignantly suggests that Cecil has become so accustomed to his second face that he can't take it off.
And so the quality that allows Cecil to advance as a butler makes him an ineffective father and husband. Over the course of the film, Gloria lapses into alcoholism and cheats on her husband with a low-rent friend (Terrence Howard), yet Cecil never comments on either. Louis comes to resent him for kowtowing to white society and for dismissing the work of civil rights activists as dangerous; meanwhile his younger son, Charlie (played as an older teenager by Elijah Kelley), follows his conformist example, enlists in the army, and dies in Vietnam. By the time Cecil reconciles with Louis at an antiapartheid protest in the mid-80s, the civil rights movement has lost much of its fire, making Cecil's triumph personal rather than political.
The film ends with a 90-year-old Cecil returning to the White House at the invite of Barack Obama. Daniels told me that he considers this the most beautiful part of the movie and that it's the only scene he's filmed that makes him cry. "[Cecil] finds himself," he said, adding, "He recognizes that he's been wrong about the civil rights movement" when he makes up with his son. The final moments of The Butler certainly feel uplifting—in keeping with the Hollywood formula the movie upholds, they practically have to—but I don't feel they overpower the skepticism of what comes before. Perhaps the point is that the happy ending is a compromised one, given the protagonist's lifelong insistence on compromise.
Like Daniels's other movies, The Butler is most exciting when it revels in contradictions. In the film's single most audacious sequence, Daniels cuts between the following scenes: one of the famous Woolworth's sit-ins of 1960, in which Louis takes part; flashbacks to Louis and other activists preparing each other for the sort of racist threats they'll receive at the sit-in; and shots of Cecil and other butlers preparing a dinner party for John F. Kennedy. Here Daniels situates a moment of political action between two very different scenes of role-playing, creating a sense of continuity between all three sets of images. This latest collision may be Daniels's most purposeful yet—at the center of that collision lie some preconceived notions about history that could stand to be shaken up.