Directed by: Lee Daniels
Written by: Danny Strong
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo and Yaya Alafia
There seems to be a much bigger movie lurking behind this version of The Butler (I refuse to type out Lee Daniels’ The Butler every time so deal with it). With so many celebrity cameos as presidents and first ladies, it must have been a hell of a thing to cut into something that Harvey Weinstein would release. Robin Williams gets maybe five minutes of screen time as Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Jane Fonda has only one major scene for her much-hyped turn as Nancy Reagan.
And yet, for all the wishing and hoping that there was more, what’s here is powerful enough on its own. The Butler is the story of the mid-twentieth century that the movies (and Mad Men) never really have the balls to tackle. It is that of the ideological and generational feud between black domestic workers and their Freedom Riding children. Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong have created a sporadic epic that, despite its flaws, packs quite the punch.
Their movie is not just the story of any black family, though. Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is a servant of presidents and, as his wife (Oprah Winfrey) likes to brag, sworn to secrecy about what he hears. His life is based on Eugene Allen, a butler during eight administrations in the White House. Cecil provides a middle-class living for his family, which also includes sons Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (played as a child by Isaac White and as an adult by Elijah Kelley).
Louis grows up to be heavily involved in the civil rights movement when he goes to college in Tennessee. The lunch counter sit-in he takes part in with other activists is the movie’s most grueling, effective sequence. Daniels places the camera at the center of the impossibly brave young men and women as they are shoved, degraded and eventually arrested. He brings the movement to vivid life through Louis’ character, and Oyelowo is terrific in the role. Louis’ fraught relationship with Cecil provides the movie with its theme, and Daniels certainly doesn’t waste any of the movie’s 132 minutes.
In fact, I would almost have preferred The Butler as a miniseries or, at the least, as a three- or four-hour movie. While everything here makes perfect sense, it’s amazing how much emotion Daniels is able to draw out of the movie when it zips through most of its history like a fifth grader trying to rush his homework. The famous names that dot the marquee (except Whitaker and Whinfrey) seem like marketing pawns, though Alan Rickman is enjoyably out of place as Ronald Reagan.
The Butler is most rushed in the beginning, when Cecil is a young boy working on a plantation where, in the span of two minutes, he hears his mother being raped and sees his father murdered by the same man. The punch of this sequence comes when it becomes clear he can just leave, he’s not a slave. Daniels orchestrates this scene with no sense of place, it could have happened a hundred years ago or fifty. This suggests that institutional racism is its own form of slavery, something that the rest of the movie echoes.
From that plantation, Cecil makes his way into servitude, which is the occupation he builds his working life around. As he says several times in the movie, he has one face for his family and friends, and another while serving white people. Though the racial policies of each president changes, Cecil still serves them the same. There is no triumphant comeuppance to Richard Nixon when says he wants to “gut” black power groups.
Whitaker is very good at channeling the conflicting pulls inside Cecil. As angry as he gets when Louis shames him for his job, he always seems to absorb it as if it’s true. Winfrey, who is certainly the biggest celebrity draw to the movie, is also quite good as his wife. This story shows us that they’ve built a life together, one that exists outside the movement even though it intersects with it unavoidably. While Louis becomes deeply rooted in the civil rights movement, their other son fights in Vietnam. All the while, Cecil must “appear invisible” to the commander-in-chief who oversees it all.
Because of its attempt at a total illustration of African American experience in this era and not just the struggles, The Butler becomes a blatant confrontation against every white-washed movie about racism, most importantly 2011’s The Help. As self-serious as the movie may sound, it is often fairly light on its feet (Liev Schreiber’s Lyndon B. Johnson rants while taking a shit). This is, after all, the same director who brought us the wonderfully trashy detective story The Paperboy last year. In both movies Daniels brings a playful, cinematic sense of the sixties while also honestly illustrating the not-so-invisible racial dividers embedded in this country’s DNA. That this movie actually has a chance of reaching a mainstream audience, though, makes it all the more thrilling.