Genre: Biography, Drama
Directed by: Lee Daniels
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, James Marsden
History can be a difficult old thing to get right in a film. For a start, there’s a lot of it and there’s always someone with a different take on events. Never mind JFK, there are competing theories on everything from the motivations behind American independence to the fate of the last Byzantine emperor and the role of fire in primitive societies. Narrating the struggle towards racial equality in 20th century USA, The Butler tries to sidestep confusion by packing in as many events as possible in the simplest manner. The turgid end result is the Hallmark card approach to civil rights. All the big moments are captured with none of the substance.
The eponymous butler is Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a man who served no less than seven US presidents starting with the Eisenhower administration. He’s based on Eugene Allen who really did work for numerous White House administrations over the years, but it’s safe to assume historical liberties have been taken. Gaines comes from the cotton fields where he saw his father shot in front of him. Trained up in the owner’s household, he escapes and proves to be an adept domestic worker before he’s talent spotted by the White House.
Working alongside every President from Eisenhower to Reagan, he lives through the bitter struggle to finally bring civil rights legislation to fruition. This is not only witnessed through Cecil’s working experiences, but also through the life of his son Louis (David Oyelowo) who becomes a freedom rider and black panther, much to the dismay of both Cecil and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey). He also has another son, Charlie (Elijah Kelley) who becomes embroiled in Vietnam, but the civil rights fight is the main concern here.
Director Lee Daniels is shooting for big targets and certainly cannot be accused of lacking ambition. Whole libraries of historical events are on display in just over two hours, knitted together with a stylish gloss. Danny Strong’s screenplay succeeds in moving through the years at a steady pace with Cecil the constant at the centre watching the world evolve around him.
Simplistic continuity comes at a price. Whitaker’s Cecil is little more than a neutral observer. Until he undergoes a damascene conversion over the course of one state dinner under the Reagan administration, he has essentially sat out close to three decades of history. His son Louis, who appears to have been at the heart of every key moment of the civil rights movement, from counter sit ins and the freedom riders to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, is introduced as the emotional bridge to connect Cecil. Implausible as his high profile civil rights campaigning is at times, these are the strongest moments, packing a real punch.
The pair find a reason to fight over every inch of the civil rights process. Cecil not only fears for his son’s life but also seems to fundamentally disagree with his actions. Such is his faith in the actions of the Presidents’ of this period; he sees no need to take such drastic steps. It is better to work hard and keep your head down. While there can be merit in this, The Butler forgets its own stance at times, juxtaposing vague conversations between Cecil and a President with an immediate speech on civil rights. The implication that the detached and allegedly apolitical Cecil has singlehandedly guided the course of US history is a hard pill to swallow.
Tackling such a huge swathe of history also brings with it insurmountable problems. The sheer number of events shoehorned in mean none are given adequate time. Instead, we zip along like a junior school history lesson, learning names and dates and little else beyond. Landmark moments in recent American history are included out of a misguided obligation to present a complete picture. Vietnam in particular barely gets a look in yet is mentioned nonetheless. Charlie’s military service there is given precious screen time so grudgingly that the film’s lack of interest couldn’t be more obvious. If they don’t even care on screen, the audience certainly isn’t going to.
Elsewhere, minor family dramas are engineered to add painfully false drama. Gloria takes up drinking and even engages in an affair, but both are dropped as quickly as they are started. Gloria’s desire to hear White House gossip is treated condescendingly, yet The Butler stoops to moments of this itself.
The Presidents’, Robin Williams Eisenhower, John Cusack’s Nixon, James Marsden’s JFK and Alan Rickman’s Reagan, all feel like comedy sketch impersonations of a US president. Only Liev Schreiber as LBJ breaks free of this. Yet these second rate presidential skits are about the only thing livening up a series of dull White House conversations.
Throughout, The Butler remains confused as to whether it is a sweeping state of the nation epic or an inside the White House expose. Lee Daniels tries admirably to show the difficult march towards equality, but surface gloss alone is not enough. Only Louis’ early protesting scenes have any spark. Everything else is vapidly dull and painfully dumbed down. Eugene Allen may have had a story to tell, but Cecil Gaines apparently does not.