REVIEW: Lee Daniel’s The Butler [2013]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 132 minutes | Release Date: August 16th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director(s): Lee Daniels
Writer(s): Danny Strong / Wil Haygood (article “A Butler Well Served by This Election”)

“To serving our country”

I’d like to say it’s surprising how an Oscar nominated director like Lee Daniels can find trouble financing a film with the type of sprawling depiction of the civil rights movement The Butler (sorry Warner Bros., I’m ignoring your lawsuit) possesses, but one doesn’t have to look past the fact everything he’s done besides Precious was panned to understand why. The unfortunate death of original producer Laura Ziskin didn’t help matters either, but an innocuous tale that does history justice while not ruffling many feathers should have gained traction much quicker. At least those forthright souls who did put forth money were rewarded for their troubles after the box office winner accrued approximately 8 times it’s budget. But an inspiring story like that of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) was always going to be a success.

And it is Cecil Gaines’ fictional story, not Eugene Allen’s reality despite screenwriter Danny Strong using Wil Haygood‘s Washington Post article about the White House butler for inspiration. Allen’s life was merely the jumping off point that gave Strong a way to tell historical fiction through the subjectivity of one family, rendering it relatable as melodrama above education. When you’re distilling a complete life into two hours, things must be compressed or skewed to fit those constraints and still tell a captivating and emotionally resonate story. Making it so Cecil’s mother was sexually abused on the cotton fields minutes before his father was murdered in front of him wasn’t to marginalize or sensationalize Allen’s less dramatic childhood, it was to ensure we the audience understood all the horrors African Americans endured during the twentieth century.

Gaines becomes a sort of Forrest Gump-like character in that he is at the center of so much, standing in the background quietly or unknowingly changing history by a simple sentence or two when asked by whatever president held office at the time. Strong goes even further than letting him have the ear of Commanders in Chief too, however, by giving him two sons: one of a contrasting socio-political opinion who joins the Freedom Fighters and Black Panthers (David Oyelowo‘s Louis) and one heavily steeped in patriotism who voluntarily joins the war in Vietnam (Elijah Kelley‘s Charlie). They let us see the two sides of the Civil Rights movement: those taking action against the country they hope to earn equality from and those willing to fight for it and earn the same loyalty they’ve given to the nation.

This duality proves the thematic backbone as Cecil admits through narration how he wears two faces: one of a black man in the black community and one of a neutral servant within a rich, powerful, and whitewashed world. Strong and Daniels embrace this internal complexity when Gaines spends more time at the White House than his own, but also in terms of stereotype and the violence history provides. They give us the chauvinistic, womanizing deadbeat of Terrence Howard‘s neighbor to contrast Cecil’s unyielding protector; the angry militant sexpot ready to kill in Yaya Alafia‘s Carol to juxtapose Mrs. Gaines’ (Oprah Winfrey) struggles with personal demons as a mother; and visionaries like Martin Luther King Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) explaining to a “hero” like Louis what a subversive pillar of strength someone in his father’s occupation was to breaking down segregation.

Does it get heavy-handed when Louis readying for a civil disobedience protest in an Alabama diner or riding a bus into the KKK’s clutches is cut with the sterile, calm, and mechanical motions of Cecil preparing dinner in tuxedo and white gloves? You bet it does. But that’s part of the show—making sure we see how fractured America truly was (and still is). These presidents are unafraid to engage with the staff or bend their ears when it comes to cajoling the black vote, but standing up for them through legislation against the vitriol of so many voters down south was a completely different story. As JFK (James Marsden) states, it wasn’t until watching the brutality these children faced during their “illegal” exercises to expose injustice on TV that he saw the stakes outside his affluent circles up north.

I’ll admit that I didn’t expect Daniels to put these horrific displays onscreen, thinking instead we’d be with Cecil the whole time hearing the news of his son’s activity without actually seeing it. I’m glad he did, though, as those scenes are when The Butler is at its most powerful because the evolution and maturity of Louis is just as important as that of Cecil growing into a position of authority in the White House with the confidence to stand up for his rights as an employed citizen. Oyelowo fought to earn the chance to portray his character from teenager to pot-bellied father and while it’s hard to believe an almost forty-year old as eighteen, his demeanor makes it work just as the consistency of his face keeps the role in focus as much as Whitaker’s.

As far as the rest go, you have to give credit to the interesting casting of presidents who do effective impersonations whether they look anything like their historical counterparts or not (John Cusack‘s Nixon and Alan Rickman‘s Reagan). The two actors I especially liked, however, were Cecil’s co-workers/bosses in Lenny Kravitz‘s introspective and thoughtful James and Cuba Gooding Jr.‘s affable and crassly humorous Carter. I wish we were able to see more behind the scenes interactions between them and Whitaker because they show just how impactful the butlers could be without knowing it. Since that would have taken away from Louis’ story, though, I’m okay with the choice to spend more time outside DC so we could see the frontlines as well as Cecil’s wrestling with being a father, a black man, and an American simultaneously.

Whitaker is the heart and soul being the central figure everything radiates from. His trademarked disarming smile comes often, but the crazed anger and rage at disrespect to himself and his country aren’t far behind. It may take him decades to comprehend what his son Louis was doing, but he does eventually get there before settling down in an Obama tee to wait for history to prove the sacrifices were worth it. While he and Oyelowo are great, I can’t say enough about Winfrey’s impactful, three-dimensional matriarch as well. She has her ups and downs flirting with danger and ambivalence before waking up to family and sobriety as the glue keeping them all together. The Gaines clan becomes a true American archetype as a result, eschewing Norman Rockwell idealism for an authenticity of pain, love, and hope.

courtesy of The Weinstein Company

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