“The Butler” tells the story of Cecil Gains (Forest Whitaker), an African American man who worked as a butler for over twenty years in the White House, serving the likes of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Ford and Reagan. I find it amusing that the marketing for the picture really emphasizes the many star cameo roles, specifically Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as Kennedy, Liev Shreiber as Johnson, John Cusack as Nixon, Alan Rickman as Reagan and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. However, after seeing the actual movie, one could argue that the scenes involving them are the least compelling. With the exception of a slightly amusing scene involving Johnson on the toilet, none of the interactions between Gains and any of the presidents make a lasting impression. In other words, director Lee Daniels (“Precious”) could have cast unknowns (or relatively unknowns) and nothing would change. But, I guess then John Cusack wouldn’t be able to put “played Richard Nixon” on his resume.
In fact, all of the happenings within the White House seem to take a back seat to a much, much bigger story. Daniels’ film is more than a simple human-interest story about Gains’s life; it is a historical and political epic recounting just about every major event and milestone in the American civil rights movement, from the very early protests, to MLK, to Malcom X, to the Black Panthers and on. What we have here is a grand ol’ feel good historical drama with some great moments and a few moving performances while also being bloated and tonally inconsistent at times.
At the beginning we get a quick rundown of Cecil’s early life. He grew up on a cotton plantation, and after witnessing his father get killed he’s taught by the plantation owner Annabeth (Vanessa Redgrave, in another unnecessary star cameo role) to be a house server. Then through a serious of circumstances he gets the call he’s been waiting for and begins his tenure as a butler at the big house. In this time we also meet his family: wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and two sons Charlie and Louis (played in adulthood by David Oyelowo). Seeing the White House and all of its activity from Cecil’s angle is the most fascinating and refreshing aspect of “The Butler.” As he stays there longer and longer, working his tail off, not saying a word, having brief encounters with the presidents themselves and gaining the respect of each president, Cecil slowly but surely makes an impression.
But, as I said before the movie is much bigger. The central conflict of “The Butler” is between Cecil and Louis. Against his father’s wishes Louis becomes an active member of the Civil Rights movement; participating in the non violent protests, riding the freedom buses, being jailed numerous times and so on. I can see why Daniels decided to make this the central story. He wants to juxtapose two very different but similar acts of revolution, as well as juxtapose two people whose opinions and outlooks on life are shaped by the vastly different time periods in which they were brought up. Cecil was brought up to serve and had to keep his real feelings and opinions to himself. During Cecil’s interview for the gig his employer informs him: “politics will not be allowed in the White House.” So, naturally he’s skeptical about his son (his flesh and blood) getting wrapped up in radical (and also dangerous) acts of protest and rebellion. Whereas Louis was brought up in a time when change and efforts to get equality for all races was just starting to take place and he didn’t want to just sit on the sidelines and keep his opinions to himself.
The movie has an overwhelming sense of history (just about all of the major civil rights events are dramatically reenacted and Daniels uses real photographs and real news footage) and an even more overwhelming sense of appreciation for the subject. Unfortunately, the film has a little too much appreciation and sense of history. Daniels drives home the politics and history with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Often times the movie is just downright preachy and you feel like you’re in a classroom.
On top of that, the screenplay by Danny Strong (based in part on the article “A Butler Well Served by this Election) tries to cover too much information and include too many events, making the movie feel too rushed at times as well as too slow at others. There are abrupt tonal shifts and dramatic imbalances, quickly going from an intense moment (like when the Freedom Riders bus is destroyed by racist southern folk) to a happy, upbeat scene of the butlers serving. The movie is two hours and twelve minutes (which is still fairly short for how big the movie is) and yet it feels longer. Daniels’ insistency to show us everything he possibly can and then some (it goes all the way up to the 2008 presidential election) is tedious. And, with all of that Daniels feels the need to include narration that—when it isn’t giving us obvious information—further adds to the moralizing didacticism
Overall, the performances in “The Butler” are solid with only a few reaching the heights of greatness. Whitaker has a face that conveys a sense of history and hardship all on its own. His presence (and face) alone commands your attention. We have no problem rooting for Cecil but Whitaker also injects him with a hint of stubbornness when it comes to his and Louis’ differing views. There are a few scenes where Cecil is outright mean to Louis. Though, the real acting surprise comes from Winfrey. Yes her name and reputation as a mega celebrity does precede her but surprisingly she turns in a genuine and moving performance. On the one hand she’s a loyal and faithful wife, always at Cecil’s side (she even shares some of the same concerns he has when it comes to Louis) but then at other times you can tell she’s unhappy; unhappy with the long hours Cecil works (when he could cut back) as well as his stubbornness and coldness towards Louis. At one point she becomes an alcoholic. Her performance is probably the biggest surprise of the film.
I have a feeling general audiences will love “The Butler.” Sure, there are some serious and intense moments but the movie stays upbeat and celebratory for the most part. And yes, I will admit that “The Butler” isn’t the sappy, Lifetime melodrama it could have been, neither is it a totally bland historical drama. There are some genuinely great moments throughout and I respect Daniels for trying to tell such a grand story. But the movie still tries to do too much and goes a little too heavy on history and politics. I wish I had more to say about the star cameos but they’re just afterthoughts. I was also a little bummed that I didn’t get to see who would play Barrack Obama; I was thinking Will Smith. Oh well.