Lee Daniels tries very hard to become the next Steven Spielberg with The Butler, a 132-minute heartfelt, epic paean to the Civil Rights struggles of black Americans in the 20th century. The result is a film that is indeed convincingly earnest, yet intermittently clumsy in its attempt to shoehorn too much history into a family tale of survival, dysfunction, alcoholism, adultery, rebellion, and disco dancing -- or vice versa.
While consistently intelligent, it's at times a bit crass, wearing its integrity on its sleeve. Yes, inarguably hard-hitting and appropriately horrific, the movie is also exploitative with its endless, often jarring parade of star cameos. I mean, Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower? Now really.
The wanting-to-have-it-all screenplay by Danny Strong is a fictional takeoff 'inspired' by a 2008 article in The Washington Post: "A Butler Well Served by This Election." The piece, scribed by Wil Haywood upon Obama's election, focused on the memories of 89-year-old Eugene Allen, a black man who was employed in the White House from the 1950s to the 1980s, serving eight presidents. In The Butler, Allen is now transformed into Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker); he, his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and their two sons experience or witness every agony and humiliation personally experienced by every Afro-American in this country from lynchings to race riots to school segregation to unequal pay.
It’s 1926 when we first meet Cecil, age 8, one afternoon in the cotton fields of Macon, Georgia. Within minutes, his mother (Mariah Carey) is raped by a white plantation owner (Alex Pettyfer), who then shoots the boy’s father (David Banner) in the middle of the forehead. Upset by her son’s murdering ways, which the law will overlook, Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave) decides to make it up to Cecil: "I'm gonna teach you how to be a house nigger."
Suddenly, our quiet hero is rescued from a slavish, backbreaking existence to one of a more refined servitude. The lad is on his way. From serving grits to the Westfall clan, to escaping the plantation life, to nearly starving, to breaking into a bakeshop for a piece of cake, to shining shoes in a hotel, to becoming the favorite butler in the White House, Cecil's rise is one way. Up! But to succeed, he needs two faces. His own, and the one white folks expect to see: submissive and thankful.
Success, however, is in the eyes of the beholder, and Cecil's oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), is finding it increasingly difficult to respect his dad's "groveling" to the very forces in society who are doing nothing or too little to create equality in our society. Suddenly, Louis is protesting at "white only" lunch counters, traveling in Freedom Rider buses in the South that are firebombed by the KKK, and joining the Black Panthers; eventually he even winds up detesting Sidney Poitier for breaking down barriers by "acting white." Father and son before long are not on speaking terms -- for decades. Meanwhile, younger sibling Charlie (Elijah Kelley) signs up for Vietnam. At the same time his older brother is fighting against his country, he will be fighting for it.
And so it goes, with campy tidbits from the White House tossed in for good measure, such as LBJ (Liev Schreiber) sitting on a toilet with the bathroom door open asking Cecil to bring him some prune juice, and Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda) in her red dress making nice to our unsung warrior. Add in a few dirty jokes, including one about a woman asking a gent to stick both his hands up her vagina and clap (well, that one was needed to avoid a PG rating), plus pertinent news clips from each era, and you have The Cosby Show meets Forrest Gump meets Do the Right Thing.
As for the acting, Whitaker and Winfrey are first rate, as are many of the supporting cast (e.g. Clarence Williams III, Lenny Kravitz). But more importantly, The Butler is an exemplary teaching tool for the young.
Take my 14-year-old nephew, who resides outside of Boston. At a party last week, he wanted to tell me a 'funny' story. His history teacher had his all-white class divided into two: half would debate why Obama was a fine president, the other half on why he is not. The first boy to speak on the anti- side stated, "I hate Obama because he’s black." The whole class laughed, to the teacher’s dismay.
For these students, and much of America, films such as The Butler and Django Unchained, no matter their faults, need to be made and remade. Eventually some, such as Fruitvale Station and Precious, get it completely right, but even the flawed serve their purpose. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Theatre into Film" and "The Arts in New York City" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, the New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.