It would be nice to be able to report that Lee Daniels' The Butler is a fascinating, nuanced historical commentary or even a moving character piece. American cinema needs antidotes to movies about the black experience that put white people front and center (I'm looking at you, The Help). But like so many Important Historical Movies, Daniels' film condescends, the better to pave the road to Oscars.
Actor-screenwriter Danny Strong skates along the surface of eight decades of American history with his script "inspired by the true story" of Eugene Allen, a member of the White House serving staff for thirty-four years. In signing over the movie rights to his life, Allen asked, "Why are they so interested in me?" but it's easy to understand the real-life-Forrest-Gump-ian appeal: Oscar winner Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, who—as Allen did—serves the administrations of Eisenhower, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Ford, Nixon, and Reagan.
You would think that would make for some really great stories, but the source material—Wil Haygood's Washington Post article "A Butler Well Served by This Election— holds a scant story that's more poem than drama: an African-American man who served eight white presidents, was very good at his job, and lived to see Obama elected. (Haygood's slim, poorly received, film-promoting, The Butler: A Witness to History further demonstrates how little "there" is there.)
The film grasps for greater significance by "enhancing" Allen's life. After a framing device (and the blunt, oddly dislocated image of a lynching with a glowing American flag in the background), Lee Daniels' The Butler takes us to 1926 Macon, Georgia for Cecil's "origin story." The eight-year-old cotton picker learns to shut up and serve following a tragedy that writes him a ticket from the fields to the house, where Vanessa Redgrave's matriarch instructs him. Out on his own, Cecil gets further instruction from a hotel waiter (Clarence Williams III) before landing a gig in the White House pantry (as the head waiter, Cuba Gooding Jr. makes a welcome return from the "B"-movie wilderness).
Once Cecil is installed as a butler, the film broadens its focus to include his home life with wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and sons Louis (David Oyelowo, convincingly playing boy to man) and Charlie (Isaac White, then Elijah Kelley). Here, Strong invents domestic strife in the forms of alcoholism and infidelity for Gloria, and rebellion through political protest for Louis. While Cecil plays witness to history (he's told, "You hear nothing, you see nothing— you only serve"), Louis makes history: at the Woolworths' lunch counter, as a Freedom Rider, in Memphis with MLK, in Oakland with the Black Panthers, and on the steps of the South African embassy, protesting apartheid. In this way, the film barrels through a lesson in the civil rights movement by pitting Cecil's quiet dignity against Louis' aggressive protest.
That comparison is a point of interest, and it leads to a couple of memorable moments that pithily dramatize conservative and progressive attitudes to the struggle. When Louis tells Cecil, "Something special's going on down here, Dad," Cecil answers, "What's so special about another colored man in jail?" Later, an argument over the social significance of Sidney Poitier stands in for the tension between father and son, who cannot help but think of his father, a cog in the system, as being something of a shuffling, bowing Uncle Tom. In another scene, Strong has no less than Dr. King himself correct Louis on this point: "Young brother, the black domestic played an important role in our history...In many ways, they are subversive without even knowing it," and the script continuously backs King up in how the presidents interact with Cecil.
Despite admirable work from Whitaker and Winfrey, Lee Daniels' The Butler is nearly crushed by its own symbolic weight and its contrivance of a central character arc from keeping one's head down to learning to stand up. Oprah's presence brings to mind her one-time theme song of choice, with its line "I'm every woman; it's all in me." Daniels wants his film to be every episode in African-American history, so Cecil hovers over Eisenhower as he contends with Faubus, Reagan as he contends with apartheid, with almost everything in between (the film comically brushes off Ford and Carter), and pseudo-slavery and Obama as bookends.
That's the gig, I guess, but we're still left holding out for more truth and less legend. As a simplistic history lesson, the PG-13-rated The Butler might well be highly effective as a conversation-starting touchstone for children. But as a drama, it's unfulfilling, and as a civil-rights-movement drama, it's only a baby step towards the one we deserve.