Dir. Lee Daniels
(2013, PG-13, 132 minutes)
The Butler is rough around the edges with notable flaws, but it’s also refreshing in one important way: It’s a story of racial inequality in America that takes the point of view of a black family. There’s a tendency in major motion pictures to tell stories about ethnic minorities or Eastern cultures through the point of view of white tourists (The Impossible) or white saviors (The Blind Side, The Help). Even science-fiction isn’t safe: in the 22nd century-set Elysium, a group of poor Hispanics need Matt Damon in a big metal body suit to rescue them.
Some of those films are better than others, and assuming a white point of view doesn’t by itself make a film good or bad, but taken together they establish a frustrating trend: do studios think a wide audience needs white protagonists to make such stories palatable? If so, why?
The Butler is helmed by Lee Daniels, a black director, who previously made Precious and The Paperboy, themselves of widely differing quality. It explores the black experience throughout the 20th century from the point of view of Cecil Gaines, who as a child watched his father, a cotton farmer, casually murdered by the plantation owner (Alex Pettyfer), who moments before had just as casually raped Cecil’s mother. The estate’s caretaker (Vanessa Redgrave), in what at that time and context must have seemed like an act of kindness, makes it up to the poor child by making him a “house nigger.” How generous.
After escaping the plantation, Cecil moves up in the world, rising from desperate thief to hotel employee and finally to White House butler, and throughout Daniels is observant of how Cecil interacts with the white world, and how the white world interacts with him, as when a white hotel guest, without reservation, feels free to express his disdain for integration in front of Cecil, so little are his feelings, opinions, or presence even noted.
A number of well-known actors have cameo roles as US presidents, and all are alike in how they took me out of the film when they arrived on-screen. Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan were especially jarring with their distracting makeup and put-on mannerisms. James Marsden fares better as John F. Kennedy, and Liev Shreiber as a foul-mouthed Lyndon Johnson uses absurdity to his advantage.
But the goings-on at the White House are not as interesting as the story of the Gaines family, which gives us quick but meaningful glimpses of the black experience through the decades, from Jim Crow to Barack Obama. As an adult, Cecil is played by Forest Whitaker; his wife Gloria by Oprah Winfrey; and his elder son Louis by David Oyelowo. Louis becomes a civil rights activist, a Freedom Rider, and then a Black Panther, and the process by which he progresses from conviction, to fear, to righteous anger could be seen as a microcosm of the civil rights movement itself.
Louis disdains his father’s work. Is Cecil’s service noble or just a perpetuation of slave roles? The film is at its best when engaging those conflicting ideas. In one scene, Martin Luther King (Nelsan Ellis) discusses how black servants, by contradicting racial stereotypes, are quietly subversive. At moments like that, so is the film.