“The Butler” follows the life of Cecil Gaines at work, as a butler in the White House, and at home where he is husband to Gloria Gaines (Oprah Winfrey) and father to Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo) and Charlie Gaines (Elijah Kelley). Before the film is over the father will have given John Fitzgerald Kennedy his Addison’s disease medication, confronted a wife who’s medicating herself a bit too much with gin, lonely from his long working hours. One son will have joined the Freedom Riders in the south and the other will serve in Vietnam. Much happens, and then you have Robin Williams playing Dwight D. Eisenhower. Yet the film tells this strangely ambitious tale with an anchor in the most personal terms, using scenes with vivid characters in intimate settings–lit by a fuzzy, sensual amber that is as much Daniels’ as the yellow lens of Soderbergh’s “Traffic” and “Magic Mike.”
This is Cecil’s story. He, played with artistry by Forrest Whitaker, has worked hard to leave the South, where his dad was shot dead by a plantation owner’s son. When the son wants to go South Cecil urges him to stay close to the home he has built through his butler work. Why would anyone want to go back there anyway? It makes sense. Because we’ve seen where Cecil comes from. This is what Lee Daniels means when he says he wanted to tell an entire history of the Civil Rights Movement.
In this film, there are two different ways for a black man to get ahead in America, none of them easy: the slow, hard-working (yet uncertain) path represented by Cecil and the urgency of now in Louis who follows Dr. Martin Luther King, and who in one scene blushes when telling Dr. King about his dad’s status as a “house negro.” Here we cut to a cook splashing water across a cutting board as Dr. King delivers a monologue explaining the significance of the butler’s work that quietly argues with any Spike Lee rant that lasted a tad too long.
The trajectory of these two narratives are articulated with gentle illumination by Daniels and the screenwriter (Danny Strong), who are working with a true story that originally appeared in a New Yorker article. The collision of ideals happens in the streets of Alabama where the son is engaging in radical acts and again over the family dinner table where the father is at the head.
It’s often been the case that films with lofty ideals such as civil rights get carried away by that very ideal. You might lose good characters to make room for soaring rhetoric or indulge in the hokey inspirational dynamics of a teacher-student relationship. Or worse, the film might want you to cry too easily.
But Daniels, working from a tough mind, wants to show the wound, salt rubbed in and all.
In a vibrant sequence we see Louis, his girlfriend, a few white guys, and the rest of the Freedom Riders being trained. At an Alabama Woolworth’s counter the camera is placed right there as condiments and human spit are thrown into their faces. Outsider types seem to present this kind of hate and anger best. Director Harmony Korine, born from a Jewish family, got two Tennessee kids to show it, fiercely calling a boy in pink bunny costume a queer in “Gummo.” The openly gay, black director Daniels gets that hate down pretty good here. Daniels tells Filmmaker Magazine: ” In high school, my mother took me away from the public school system I was in, and she put me in another school with all these white kids. And I was called “faggot,” and I was bullied, and I was called “nigger.” And I was niggered and faggoted to the point of becoming who it is that I am right now, flaws and all…”)
Back home, Cecil’s parties are lively and the viewer can relax in the comfortable life he has obtained in D.C. In both generational cases it is to Lee Daniels’ credit that “The Butler” is full of people with their own being: the son burning for a better life and the father living in a better life. The bonding at home moments are marked by a warmth that boasts Daniels’ greatest asset as a director in making his actors comfortable, and in tight psychic communion with each other. It is here that Howard (played by Terrence Howard), the neighborhood numbers runner, and his wife come over, and Gloria whose curves sway with the music is being admired by Cecil as he jokes and sits at the table with his buddies. Daniels gets everyone feeling good. He hasn’t completely abandoned the sexual pleasures of “The Paperboy.”
In this history it stands that for every Dr. King who had a dream, there were thousands of Carter Wilson’s (Cuba Gooding Jr.) who had one too, mixed in with the dirty ones. An excellent Cuba Gooding Jr. is particularly funny when rolling bread dough into a boob and talking shit when Vice President Nixon barges in with some campaign buttons—himself not exactly hanging with these boys on pure motives. Daniels presents people as people before he gets down to the ideals.
At first “The Butler” feels like it is a safe kind of movie. But I don’t know. The ideals evoked by the butler and the son are somewhat taken for granted today. Recently some presidential historians and Ronald Reagan’s son Michael felt compelled to assert that president Reagan was not a racist, as depicted in the movie. Ronald Reagan and Nancy (Alan Rickman & Jane Fonda) aren’t exactly that in the film. They invite Cecil and Gloria to a dinner as guests and Ronald is sad when Cecil hands him a piece of bad news. Overall Reagan is shown here to be what the novelists said he was, a normal, unremarkable American man.
This is a movie more concerned with a kind of novelistic truth. I imagine to the extent presidential politics is discussed, a reality of perception in an average home has these impressions down. That Lyndon Baines Johnson, who signed Civil Rights legislation, or John F. Kennedy, whose brother respectfully quoted Aeschylus to a street full of distressed African Americans after Dr. King’s assassination, will simply have more credibility on race issues than a president, Reagan, who, say, lifted sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime.
In college my African American Studies teacher Tonia Anderson, who would write “turn down the drama” on my papers, probably didn’t think George W. Bush was a racist. But on the day after his reelection she stood in front of our class and fought off tears. The day’s plan was called off and she opened up the room to a kind of talk session. Bush wasn’t a racist, but the public perception remained that under his administration unfortunate events like the slow response to Hurricane Katrina happened, things that might make one feel invisible.
Lee Daniels, who once owned an agency that managed 5,000 working nurses, is a director who has now proven he can go anywhere he wants. In the stylistically bold “Precious,” he put to film the life of an overweight black girl with HIV and he lent it a kind of music.
In “The Paperboy” he recruited Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, John Cusack and Nicole Kidman to his style. This was a fun, trashy story that plunged its game actors into a swampy, saturated abyss of murder and sex. The film was booed and called inept trash at the Cannes film festival. For my part I can say I enjoyed it, and found the racial co-mingling in it affecting (see Matthew McConaughey crouched up on the kitchen counter hanging with Macy Gray’s maid). Also, I hadn’t seen a sex scene like the one Daniels executed, where a death row inmate and his groupie reach orgasm together while sitting ten feet apart.
Even so, “The Butler” is a traditional film, in that its long narrative arc reminds some of “Forrest Gump.” But the people in it are not obvious choices for a civil rights film in the same way that “Precious’” Gabourey Sidibe was not an obvious leading lady and “The Paperboy” was not a career maker for Nicole Kidman. Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, Dr. Martin Luther King, these guys obviously wanted their rights, and look good on film doing it, but what did the servant do?
Forrest Whitaker’s Cecil Gaines is a humble man who is competent at his job. He headed up a family he appears to have adored. The camera stands with poise to show you his face as he puts on his cuff links. In considering the culture at large, this film has a remarkable way about it. Smart movies are made all the time, and smart people will always go to them. But not all of the smart people will be able to explain if and how a movie like this makes them feel so good, for what Daniels offers is an education of the heart.
In meticulously caring for his characters as they are Lee Daniels has found box office success. And his method is as radical as it’s always been.