Lee Daniels’ The Butler

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday August 16, 2013

Forest Whitaker stars in ’The Butler’
Forest Whitaker stars in ’The Butler’  (Source:The Weinstein Company)

From humble origins on a cotton plantation to a position of trusted service in the White House, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is a sometimes reluctant witness to history unfolding -- including the often-difficult road to greater civil equality for African-Americans.

"Lee Daniels' The Butler", a fictionalized version of the career of White House butler Eugene Allen, whose service spanned eight presidencies, addresses topics that remain vital, and crucial, to our core identity as a pluralistic, multi-ethnic democracy. In the wake of the Supreme Court's gutting of voter protections for minorities, and the George Zimmerman trial debacle -- two headline events that took place well after the film had started production -- its arrival at the cineplex could not be more timely or fortuitous.

Too bad it's not a better, more solid film.

"The Butler" is earnest and well-intentioned throughout, and it starts off with a shocking, but probably necessary, lesson in just how little dignity, safety, or respect African-Americans were accorded in the early 20th century. After seeing a plantation owner spirit his mother to a shed for a sexual dalliance, a young Cecil (Michael Rainey. Jr.) shames his father (David Banner) into speaking up to the gun-toting rapist. A moment later, his father is dead; young Cecil has learned a hard lesson about who may, and who may not, expect to be treated with simple human dignity and seek change if it's not given to them. The plantation's sympathetic matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) takes the boy in and teaches him how to serve at table and otherwise tend to domestic matters.

Later in life, after he's made his way to Washington, D.C. and employment in a fine hotel, Cecil's unflappable demeanor and coolly diplomatic manner are noted by a man in a position to better his life. That man turns out to be in charge of hiring the service staff for the White House -- and Cecil, taking the job, steps through the doors of power and into history in the making.

In seeking to give a sense of how Cecil saw and heard race issues being discussed and decided at the highest level, the film resorts to parading a succession of presidents before us. Some are well cast -- Robin Williams is a discovery as Eisenhower --†and some ring a "What Were They Thinking?" bell, especially John Cusack (in a dire prosthetic nose) as Richard Nixon. (One juicy bit of casting finds Jane Fonda assuming the role of Nancy Reagan. Well, you can't accuse the makers of this film of being without a sense of humor.)

The film has a lot of ground to cover, and so it leaps through the decades, sometimes at an alarming pace. What's left behind is nuance and texture, both of the politics of the modern era, as the civil rights struggle commences in earnest, and Cecil's own family drama, which includes an elder son who throws himself into the fight for equality, over the objections of his parents --†and the younger son who heads to Vietnam, with tragic results.

There's also some marital discord roiling Cecil's home. Oprah Winfrey plays Cecil's wife, Gloria, and to her credit she allows the part to be less than glamorous -- less than strictly admirable, too, given her dalliances with another man during Cecil's absences as he works long hours at the White House. From time to time, Gloria's dissatisfaction erupts in a jealous flare, as when she demands to know how many pairs of shoes Jackie Kennedy has. Winfrey seems a bit of inspired casting, whereas Whitaker taking the role of Cecil feels more calculated, and not quite right.

This is a dramatization, of course, and there several effective sequences that drive home the friction and fear that saturated America throughout the 1960s, as social change arrived in a series of national convulsions. There are smaller moments, too, that speak to the inner struggle of rising to the task of defending oneself, as when Cecil allows himself to be silenced when he tentatively attempts to ask for a raise (even in the White House of Kennedy and Johnson, blacks were paid less than whites). Then there are the thankfully rare moments when one president or another, sunk in gloom and overwhelmed with the moral crisis of race riots, youth unrest, and the prospect of being on the wrong side of history, confide in Cecil; those occasions may well have happened, but they jangle against the film's tone and feel contrived, especially when a fretful Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) worries that he's made the wrong choices regarding apartheid-era South Africa.

The film's overall effect is less that story of a man who lived though some of recent history's most striking years than a set of flashcards on race relations and the turbulent decade that saw matters of race (along with so many other things) come boiling over and spilling out of our so-called American melting pot.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.