Lee Daniels’ The Butler is the kitchen sink of civil rights movies. Here we have a man who takes a job as a butler to President Eisenhower and somehow manages to eavesdrops on every confidential White House conversation concerning the treatment of blacks in America for eight administrations, while his eldest son simultaneously participates in several key milestones in the march to freedom. This is one fortuitous family that has seen much, and whose lives seem like a greatest-hits compilation of our nation’s darker times. I know that sounds cynical; but, believe me, it isn’t. Much has already been made of the fact that The Butler isn’t exactly historically accurate, so all the flourishes that were added for dramatic effect are fair game for scrutiny. And, boy, are there some doozies on display.
How could one family see such equal measures of horror and triumph in a lifetime? Things don’t start well for young Cecil Gaines (loosely based on the very real Eugene Allen), who watches a sadistic white cotton sharecropper (Alex Pettyfer) rape his mother and murder his father within a span of minutes. That’s in 1920s Macon, Georgia. The plantation’s owner puts Cecil in the house as a server, where he stays until he decides to go it alone on the streets as a teen. After breaking into a shop to steal food, the shop’s servant sees something in the boy and gives him a job. Through a requisite montage, Cecil hones his serving skills, gets married, has kids, and generally grows into a full-sized Forest Whitaker (very good in a role of limited range). Later, he takes a plum job as a waiter at a posh Washington D.C. hotel.
The movie finally finds its footing in 1957, when Cecil is offered a butler’s position at the White House. There, he hits the jackpot of comic-relief sidekicks in the form of Carter and James (Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lenny Kravitz), both fellow butlers, who teach Cecil that its okay to laugh in the kitchen, as long as you’re invisible when you enter a room filled with dignitaries. Cecil goes about his job with a stoic determination, serving food and wine with nary a sigh for thirty years, even as a litany of U.S. Presidents conduct confidential business about race relations right under his nose: Eisenhower doesn’t know what to do about school integration; Kennedy doesn’t think blacks deserve equal rights; and, years later, Nixon even discusses a strategic way to suppress the Black Panthers while maintaining political clout with the larger black community.
There are more cameos afoot, including Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. All are played in distracting cameos by established actors like Robin Williams, James Marsden, John Cusak, Liev Schreiber and Alan Rickman. Jane Fonda even gets a thirty second spot as Nancy Reagan, who invites Cecil to a State dinner under the auspice of recognizing his reputation as a legendary White House servant, but who really needs him there as a political sideshow freak. What does the movie say about Nancy Reagan? Not much, as it turns out. She’s in and out of the movie before you can blink your eyes. The same goes for the other heads of state, which is one of the movie’s fundamental problems: instead of creating compelling characters, the screenplay (by Danny Strong) limits the onscreen time of each President so severely that each of them is rendered down to little more than a one-note wishy-washy mess on the issue of civil rights. They come across as plot devices to move Cecil from one generation to the next, as opposed to intelligent, well-educated heads of state, which ultimately diminishes their impact on American history. For that matter, I suppose you could say the same is true for Cecil, himself. The screenplay implies he’s reluctant to speak up about the injustice all around him because he watched his own father get shot down in cold blood for speaking his mind at the wrong time. And yet, the movie puts Cecil in one improbable situation after another, precisely to give him the opportunity to make a difference in not only his life, but the lives of others. But he says nothing for most of the film’s length, until a perfunctory scene at the end where he makes a small but significant impact. What that leaves us with, then, is the arduous task of watching a fly sit on a wall for more than two hours, and that makes The Butler a meandering slog.
The real story is with Cecil’s son, Louis, who, I was dismayed to discover, was not the political activist portrayed in the movie. Nevertheless, although it’s highly unlikely Louis would have been at the forefront of so many major incidents and movements in the history of civil rights, his story is played out convincingly enough by the remarkably talented David Oyelowo. He survives a bus bombing, the KKK, is abused by a group of vicious whites at a southern diner, joins the Black Panthers, and eventually becomes a Congressman, all while being thoroughly disregarded by his father, who thinks his son has no place in politics. Frankly, I think Louis would be a terrific subject for a film all his own.
Now, a final note — about the big O. Oprah Winfrey. As Cecil’s unbalanced wife, she has the unenviable task of playing the warm-up act to Forest Whitaker’s headliner role, but she does it with total truth and conviction. Her Gloria is a deeply flawed woman — an alcoholic and possible adulterer — but Winfrey fills her with enough compassion to make her a relatable and thoroughly absorbing character. There were moments when I forgot I was watching “Oprah: Queen of Daytime Talk,” and isn’t that the hallmark of a good performer? I said to my husband just today that I wonder what would have happened if she had chosen to stay with acting after her stunning performance in The Color Purple all those years ago. I suspect she would be something to behold in a wholly different way than she is now.