Lee Daniels’ The Butler is saddled with its director’s name in the title due to a legal dispute over a similarly-named film from 1916. (Ah, Hollywood!) While it’s an excellent drama, it’s historical setting also proves to be just as cumbersome.
The film is “inspired” by the life of Eugene Allen, who served as a butler at the White House for 30 years under 8 United States Presidents. That’s really just a framework, though, since the rest of the story is completely fictional. The title character here is Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), born into a family of cotton plantation workers in the American South, and raised as a house servant when his father is killed by a vicious employer. On coming of age, he sets out to leave the South and never go back.
Continuing his life as a butler, in the late 1950s Cecil is recruited to work at the White House, a job he performs with pride, but which threatens to drive a wedge between him and his family: wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and sons Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley). Cecil’s relationship with Louis is the most complicated, and becomes even more strained as Louis involves himself in the Black Civil Rights Movement. But as much as Louis’ active protest helps to change the world, it’s perhaps changed just as much by the subtle influence the quiet butler has on the Presidents he cares for.
Students of history won’t find much to illuminate them in The Butler. It tracks the major Civil Rights events of the 50s and 60s – including desegregation, civil disobedience, the Selma protests, Martin Luther King Jr., and the rise of the Black Panther party – but beyond a couple of harrowing depictions of white cruelty, they mostly play out as external events. Cecil, staying at home and heavily involved in his work, just stares at the TV news, alternately concerned for, and annoyed by, his son. He clearly longs for change just as much, but he believes in doing it the safe way, from within the system, and he trusts his Presidents to do the work. The movie ends up simply marking time, which makes it feel much longer than its 132 minutes. That also puts it out of reach of many who might actually learn some of the history.
Speaking of Presidents, Cecil’s moments with them are nothing special. All of these Commanders-in-Chief come off as highly ineffectual, reaching out to their humble butler for small talk as they struggle with the events around them. Perhaps the subtext is that they really were ineffectual in battling racism, but these were powerful men, and here they’re all just empty vessels. It doesn’t help that nearly every casting choice is distracting. Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower and James Marsden as John F. Kennedy fare the best, but the sight of John Cusack as Richard Nixon or Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan is just too head-scratching to keep us involved in the movie.
Those concerns aside, the real draw here is the personal story. For every artificial moment there is an equally great scene showing its effect on Cecil and family. Whitaker is sensational as a man forced by circumstance to present a professional face to the world, but there’s always movement behind that face revealing an inner life. Winfrey is equally good, mining some dark territory as an alcoholic, unfaithful wife coping with loneliness and estrangement who eventually finds inner strength. A stellar supporting cast – including Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, and Clarence Williams III – is more than competent, but underserved by the script.
Curiously enough, if Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong had done away with the Presidential conceit, they might have had a much better film on their hands. As it is, The Butler is still eminently watchable, just not for the reasons you may be expecting.
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