â€œThe Butlerâ€ 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 Addisonâ€™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 Â in the south andÂ the otherÂ 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 Danielsâ€™ as the yellow lens of Soderberghâ€™s â€œTrafficâ€ and â€œMagic 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 ownerâ€™s son.Â Â 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 weâ€™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 whoÂ in one scene blushes when telling Dr. King about his dadâ€™s status as a â€œhouse negro.â€ HereÂ we cut to a cookÂ splashing water across a cutting board as Dr. King delivers a monologue explaining the significance of the butler’s workÂ 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.Â 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 aÂ 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 Woolworthâ€™s counter the camera is placed right there as condiments and human spit are thrown into their faces. Outsider types seem toÂ present this kind of hate and anger best.Â Director Harmony Korine, born from a Jewish family,Â got two Tennessee kids to show it, Â fiercely calling a boy in pink bunny costume a queer in â€œGummo.â€ The openly gay, black director Daniels gets that hate down pretty good here. Daniels tells Filmmaker Magazine: “Â 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 â€œfaggot,â€ and I was bullied, and I was called â€œnigger.â€ And I was niggered and faggoted to the point of becoming who it is that I am right now, flaws and all…â€)
Back home, Cecilâ€™s parties are lively and the viewer can relax in the comfortable life he has obtained in D.C. Â In both generational cases it is to Lee Danielsâ€™ 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.Â 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 hasnâ€™t completely abandoned the sexual pleasures of â€œThe Paperboy.â€
In this history it stands that for every Dr. King who had a dream, there were thousands of Carter Wilsonâ€™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 â€œThe Butlerâ€ feels like it is a safe kind of movie. But I donâ€™t know. The ideals evoked by the butler and the son are somewhat taken for granted today. Recently some presidential historians and Ronald Reaganâ€™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) arenâ€™t exactly that in the film. They inviteÂ 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. Â I imagine to the extent presidential politics is discussed, a reality of perception in an average home has these impressions down.Â That Lyndon Baines Johnson, who signed Civil Rights legislation, or John F. Kennedy, whose brotherÂ respectfullyÂ quoted Aeschylus to a street full of distressed African Americans after Dr. Kingâ€™s assassination, will simply have more credibility on race issues than a president, Reagan, who, say, lifted sanctions on South Africaâ€™s apartheid regime.
In college my African American Studies teacher Tonia Anderson, who would write â€œturn down the dramaâ€ on my papers, probably didnâ€™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 dayâ€™s plan was called off and she opened up the room to a kind of talk session. Bush wasnâ€™t a racist, but the public perception remained that under his administration unfortunate eventsÂ like the slowÂ 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 â€œPrecious,â€ he put to film the life of an overweight black girl with HIV and heÂ lent it a kind of music.
In â€œThe Paperboyâ€ he recruited Matthew McConaughey,Â ZacÂ Efron,Â John Cusack and Nicole Kidman to his style. This was a fun, trashy story thatÂ plunged its game actors into aÂ swampy, saturated abyss ofÂ murder andÂ sex.Â Â The film wasÂ booed and called ineptÂ trash at the Cannes film festival. For my part I can say I enjoyed it, andÂ found the racial co-minglingÂ in it affecting (see Matthew McConaughey crouched up on the kitchen counter hanging with Macy Gray’s maid).Â Also, IÂ hadnâ€™t seen a sex scene like the one Daniels executed, where a death row inmateÂ and his groupie reach orgasm togetherÂ whileÂ sittingÂ ten feet apart.
Even so, “The Butler” is a traditional film, in that its long narrative arc reminds some of â€œForrest Gump.â€ But the people in it are not obvious choices for a civil rights film in the same way that â€œPreciousâ€™â€ Gabourey Sidibe was not an obvious leading lady and â€œThe Paperboyâ€ was not aÂ career maker for Nicole Kidman.Â 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. HeÂ headed upÂ a family he appears to have adored.Â Â The cameraÂ standsÂ withÂ poiseÂ to show you his face as he puts on his cuff links. In considering the culture at large,Â this film has a remarkable way about it.Â Smart movies are made all the time, and smart people will always go to them. ButÂ not all of the smart people will be able to explain if and howÂ a movie like this makes them feel so good,Â for what Daniels offers isÂ an education of the heart.
In meticulouslyÂ caring for his characters as they are LeeÂ Daniels has found box office success. And his method isÂ as radical as it’s always been.