Does American cinema really need an Afrocentric Forrest Gump? You bet it does!
I could spend this entire review detailing the things that are wrong — or, more accurately, "wrong" — with Lee Daniels' The Butler, starting with the fact that it's called Lee Daniels' The Butler. I didn't much care for Daniels' previous two films, the overheated/overpraised Precious and the overheated/little-seen The Paperboy, and his direction is similarly purple and spotty here.
The title of the film, based loosely on a 2009 Washington Post piece about a long-time White House butler and scripted by Danny Strong, suggests one protagonist, but this is really a father/son story, with the men something like two Gumps, dual witnesses to a panorama of American history. Through Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), somewhat more believably, we see this history from the vantage point of the White House, where he serves presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan.
Meanwhile, Cecil's son, Louis (David Oyelowo), is radicalized as a youth by the grotesque murder of Emmett Till, a boy much the same age, and the fierce advocacy of his mother, Mamie Till Bradley. He leaves Washington for Fisk University in Nashville and improbably finds himself at the center of nearly every major event in the civil rights movement: at lunch-counter sit-ins, aboard the Freedom Rides, facing Bull Connor's dogs and hoses in Birmingham, marching in Selma, in a certain second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel, at Black Panther meetings in Oakland.
The script is structured, with minimal subtlety, as a series of historical signposts. And the presidential casting is a distracting misfire, relying on stunt selections (Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan) and name actors (Robin Williams as Ike, John Cusack as Nixon) instead of choices that might have more fully disappeared into their roles.
You are free to smirk at the broadness of the film's conceit — especially as one president after another has his heart and mind shifted on civil rights policy via proximity to Cecil — but though The Butler has a very good, finely wrought family story at its center, this is a film more about public history than private lives. The act of viewing sweeping history through a personal prism is nearly as old as the film medium itself, but the particular perspective here is fresh. The Butler is arguably the first significant mainstream film about America's racial history by a black filmmaker since Spike Lee's Malcolm X, way back in 1992, and it underscores what a terrible disservice the industry has done by denying us this perspective.
Daniels isn't a filmmaker of Lee's caliber, but his usual boldness often serves him well here. We first meet Cecil as an old man, sitting in the White House lobby. Looking up, his mind flashes back to an image from his young adulthood — two black bodies, tied together and lynched on a moon-drenched night, an American flag flying above them. It's a nervy image that lets you know upfront that the film isn't concerned with reassurance.
Cecil grows up the son of a sharecropper on a Georgia plantation. His mother was raped and father murdered by the same white man — a harsh but not inaccurate metaphor for the historical black experience in America. He's brought in by the plantation matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) and trained to be a "house n*****." Along the way, Cecil learns to wear two faces, the one he shows to his own people and the one he assumes around whites, where he's trained to be invisible.
This duality in 20th-century African-American life is the film's primary subject and one Whitaker carries superbly as we see him negotiate different worlds — the ability to blend that makes him so good at his job also impairs his relationship with his son — and grapple with social change. Along the way, the film opens up worlds rarely seen at the multiplex: from cozy house parties with Faye Adams on the box to dinner-table debates about Sidney Poitier to Manning Marable paperbacks.
If the presidential casting is awkward, the film is a much stronger showcase for its black actors, with Whitaker, Oyelowo, and a grounded, believable Oprah Winfrey (as Cecil's conflicted, alcoholic wife, Gloria), given strong support by the likes of Terrence Howard as a sketchy neighbor and especially Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as fellow White House butlers.
The film peaks with some rousing tri-part cross-cutting — Cecil and other black White House butlers staffing a State dinner, activist James Lawson training Nashville students for a sit-in, and the sit-in itself, which provokes degradation and violence. Though the film shows some respect and affection, to varying degrees, for all the presidents it covers, it identifies these movement foot soldiers as the real engineers of change.
The Butler's greatest strength is that it manages to be daring while still playing like a big, populist entertainment. In this way, it's an unintentional companion piece to 2011's The Help. I imagine many who approve of The Butler will use it as a cudgel against The Help, while detractors will link them for the twin sins of focusing on African-American domestics — for generations, the maid and the butler two of the most stereotypical of black film roles; there's a little riff here on the subject, attributed to Martin Luther King, that feels like a partial defense of the earlier film — and being middlebrow entertainments at heart.
But I thought the deeply uncool The Help, which took a problematic form and shaded it toward unexpectedly discomforting areas, caught far too much flack, and the at times even more aesthetically ham-fisted The Butler, which takes a roughly similar milieu and mostly dispenses with the "need" for white audience identification, is even better. More essential.
The most surprising moment in the film comes in what we've been conditioned to expect to be the protagonist's moment of triumph. After decades on the job, Cecil, with his wife, is invited as a guest — not a server — to a White House dinner. A lesser film would have ended on this note of conciliation and hard-earned appreciation. But Cecil's reaction and the film's treatment of the moment is complex and conflicted. For this film, rare among Hollywood treatments of race in America, there are further roads to travel and deeper truths to pursue.
Lee Daniels' The Butler
Opening Friday, August 16th