I suppose this review should actually be titled “Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler”, because of a silly dispute with Warner Bros. which required them to turn the simplistic title of The Butler into something that sounds vaguely ridiculous. But title disagreements aside, The Butler is an interesting amalgam of a film, which works as a whole even when some parts don’t hold up as well as they should. It’s one part biopic, one part fiction, with a healthy serving of Forrest Gump along with a good deal of racial politics. It has an immensely impressive cast and a solid balance between the family drama at the heart of the film and the somewhat gimmicky side of the story. Plus, it’s one that’s destined to tug at the heartstrings.
The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who began life as a boy picking cotton on a Georgia plantation in the 1920s and ends up as a butler in the White House. It’s conceptually based on the life of Eugene Allen, who served as a White House butler for 34 years and was the focus of a Washington Post article which inspired the screenplay. The drama has been ramped up from Eugene to Cecil, who sees his mother raped and his father shot by the young man who owns the plantation. Cecil is taken in by the lady of the house, who teaches him how to be a house servant. Once he’s old enough, he leaves the cotton fields behind, and through a series of coincidences and a sense of geniality and respect within Cecil he lands a job as a White House Butler.
It’s here that one half of the story resides. Cecil works from the Eisenhower administration through the Regan administration, and he has encounters with many of the Presidents, all of whom are played by familiar actors and all of whom are dealing with racial issues on some level. Eisenhower (Robin Williams) is facing desegregation and whether to use troops in Little Rock, Kennedy (James Marsden, with Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy) has to decide how to deal with the Freedom Riders and the growing problems of race relations in the country before his assassination, Johnson (a hilarious Live Schreiber) signs the Civil Rights act into law while Vietnam steadily grows worse, Nixon (John Cusack) is too wrapped up in his own problems to care about how to deal with the Black Panthers. And then there’s Reagan (Alan Rickman, with Jane Fonda as Nancy), who puts on a good show about race relations yet refuses to act in sanctions against apartheid in South Africa.
As I said before it’s a gimmick, but it’s one that largely worked. Where Forrest Gump’s encounters with historical figures felt forced, Cecil has a real reason to interact with these Presidents. It makes sense that in private moments a President would choose to engage with a black member of his staff about the racial topics of the day, even if the implication that Cecil had a hand in some of the biggest decisions made by those Presidents seems a bit far-fetched. It’s fun to see the interpretations of these important figures from history, some of whom work better than others. Cusack’s Nixon is as sleazy as you would imagine, including a hilarious attempt to drum up the black vote among the staff while serving as Vice President to Eisenhower. Schreiber hams it up as Johnson, giving forceful orders to his Chief of Staff while sitting on the toilet. Williams and Marsden don’t have as much to do, with William’s Eisenhower looking tired and Marsden’s Kennedy sympathetic but cut short.
But Cecil’s White House service is only one side of the story. His home life is actually the driving force of the narrative, as his family deals with his position and with the events of the time. Cecil’s eldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), sees the state of the world and is driven to action. Louis takes it upon himself to join every group and demonstration that is working for civil rights, often putting him in danger or in jail. From the sit ins organized by James Lawson of the 50’s to the Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Black Panthers and beyond, Louis wants nothing more than to make a difference and create change. He can’t stand his father serving white masters, and the two clash over their lifestyles. Whitaker has a calm, shy quality as Cecil, the sort of man who speaks softly and forces you to listen. It’s easy to imagine a President opening up to him, as its both his training and his nature to make people feel comfortable with him around even when they’re not naturally inclined to. Whitaker’s performance is strong but understated, which makes his passionate moments stand out all the more. Cecil’s younger son, Charlie (Elijah Kelley), mostly stays in the background, as the Cecil/Louis dynamic gets most of the screen time.
And then there’s Cecil’s wife, Gloria, played by Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey hasn’t starred in a movie in 15 years, but it’s clear she hasn’t lost any of the ability which got her an Oscar nomination back in 1985 for a fantastic performance in The Color Purple, and she might be destined for a second nomination with this performance. Gloria is forced to negotiate the varying opinions in the family, trying to create peace between father and son while standing up for her own beliefs. Cecil’s job keeps him out of the house most of the time, and Gloria copes with her loneliness with drink and another man. Gloria represents the often neglected middle ground, and as such is the most human and well-rounded character of the film. Where Louis is all seething rage and passion and Cecil is quiet dignity and pride, Gloria struggles to find a way to fit in between. She’s proud of her husband and defends him to Louis in shocking fashion, but she loves her son and tells a heartbreaking story to Cecil of Louis’s love during a period of estrangement between father and son. She’s the anchor to the film, much in the way that Gary Sinise’s Lt. Dan was for Forrest Gump, and her performance is what has stuck with me longer than anything else in The Butler. I can only hope that this will lead to a return to more frequent big screen appearances by Winfrey.
Director Lee Daniels (who directed the ridiculously named Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire) keeps things simple, opting to let the cast shine. Danny Strong (known to many as Jonathan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) makes the jump from writing acclaimed HBO films to the big screen admirably, juggling the gimmicky aspects of the film and the human drama story extremely well, while also showing a solid understanding of the realities of the time period. Daniels does a good job of capturing the fear and anger of the time, particularly the in little moments of ugliness that were so common in those days. Daniels has also filled the rest cast both with established actors like Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard and Vanessa Redgrave and with celebrities like Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey.
There’s a fair bit of politics to the movie, some of which is fairly even-handed and some of which definitely is not. The Butler does a good job of showing the advantages and disadvantages of both Cecil and Louis’s points of view. There is something to be said both for heated advocacy and shouting demands as well as for setting an example for others with quiet dignity. If anything, The Butler argues for both, as Cecil’s encounters with the Presidents are often triggered by the shouting in the streets but influenced by calm, honest conversation.
However, there’s another aspect of the political story which seems to be causing some anger, particularly among conservatives. Neither Nixon nor Reagan come off looking particularly well in the film. Nixon is predictably a paranoid jerk, concerned more for gaining and maintaining power than with doing the right thing, but Nixon is hard to defend these days. The Butler’s handling of Reagan, on the other hand, has been strongly criticized. Reagan and his wife invite Cecil to a White House dinner as a guest, which Cecil at first takes as a huge compliment only to realize that his invitation was simply for show. Reagan’s refusal to sanction South Africa over apartheid becomes a turning point for Cecil, but many people online have criticized the film’s suggestion that Reagan was unwilling to act in favor of civil rights. I’m no historian, and I’ll leave the debate over facts to others, but it’s not a stretch to imagine conservative pundits reacting badly to anything other than a glowing portrayal of the President who they frequently hold above all others. Especially when you consider the way in which it handles the election of Obama. As for the criticisms that The Butler has little in common with the actual life of the man who inspired it, I think those are overblown. The fact that the protagonist of the film has a different name makes it clear that this is not a biopic of Eugene Allen, but is instead a hypothetical example of one family’s life through troubled times which takes some of its ideas from the life of the man but invents a story to go with it. We all know that “based on a true story” is a loose description, and while I’m all for historical accuracy, I think it was never the point of the movie to be a factual biography.
The Butler, at its core, is a look at how the ways in which we deal with race in this country have changed over the years from a variety of perspectives. Its unique narrative feature allows for both the story of a typical family and that of the changing world of politics. But where it really stands out is in its performances and in the little moments. The sit ins and the KKK attacks and the Kennedy assassination all hit hard, but the quiet moments of casual ugliness that stick with you. Cecil fights throughout the years to get the black staff in the White House to have equal pay as the white staff, and it’s these moments of casual racism that are perhaps the most believable and therefore the most shocking. In the end, the laws may have been easier to change than individuals. The Butler is a reminder of how far we’ve come on race in a single generation, but also of how the job is far from finished, fittingly released near the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s most famous speech.