I struggled with Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” a movie that tells the story of the struggle for racial equality through several turbulent decades. It’s a difficult movie for a few reasons. The subject matter is troubling because it so starkly portrays the heinous atrocities committed during the civil rights movement. It’s an emotionally draining experience, no matter how familiar we are with the source material. Watching the awful depths people sank to, and the horrible treatment they received at the hands of their fellow man is difficult to stomach. I also found the movie difficult because of how clumsily the subject is handled. It’s a movie engineered to elicit an emotional reaction at an almost subatomic level—a film I would describe as “manipulative to a fault.”
“The Butler” is two movies intertwined and yet constantly at odds with one another. One is the story of a proud man who suffers quiet indignities at the hands of his employers, where he serves as butler in the White House. The other is a more traditional civil rights story about his son and the struggle for racial equality throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. I call it “traditional” because so much of it feels like the kind of historical fiction we’ve seen many times before. The film is not bad by any stretch, but it’s a well-intentioned mess that delivers every emotional beat with a leaden heavy hand.
The life of Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker) rarely is an easy one. He watches his father’s murder before being brought into servitude by racist employers. Taught this trade out of guilt for what happened to his father, the family views his job as some kind of gift—especially because it will spare him from manual labor. Cecil learns how to work with quiet dignity, and teaches how to engage those he works for without judgment or eye contact. There’s something sad about seeing a man like Cecil reduced to this role—not because of the nature of the work but because he is basically trained to be invisible to his employers. When he gets a job at the White House, he serves the most powerful men in the world. Still, he sits in suffered silence as he listens to them belittle the plight of his people while being treated like a second-class citizen.
Whitaker is great in the role. Much of his performance relies on subtleties, like the expression on his face when he hears terrible things said about those on the freedom march, desperate to peacefully find equality in a country that seems uninterested in their predicament. The entire performance is a master class in restraint.
Among those marching in the now-famous protests are his son, who risks his life for the betterment of his people. Most of the movie moves back and forth between the struggle of Cecil choosing a life of restraint and dignity in the face of hatred, and his son who chooses to fight for what he knows is right. On paper, this is an interesting dichotomy, but the film’s director, Lee Daniels, pours it on so thick it’s almost like he’s trying to drown the message.
There are lots of likable elements in the movie but as a cohesive narrative, it sorely lacks. The scenes of horrible atrocities, no matter how real, feel comically overstated—so much so they could have been pulled out of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” That is in no way an effort to mitigate the sad brutality of civil rights. The movie should start 10 minutes past the opening scene, without the clunky attempt at establishing the horrors of racial violence. It obviously tells every choice Lee Daniels will make throughout the rest of the film.
My biggest problem with “The Butler” is just that: It’s obvious. So much of the storytelling structure feels cribbed from “Forrest Gump.” It starts with a character on a bench, narrating the various chapters of his life, complete with news footage on a TV and popular music from the era. Fast forward five or 10 years at a time, it takes the characters through every significant historical moment over 50 years.
I think “The Butler” will be enjoyed by anyone unfamiliar with this history—a youngster just learning about the civil injustices so many of our own Americans endured because their fellow citizens didn’t see humanity as something owed to everyone. As a primer, “The Butler” covers much of the history effectively. For anyone familiar with the era, it feels more like a greatest hits remix of the civil rights movement.
Still, I like Whitaker in the main role and I like the quieter moments in the film. The desperation to make it be something historically relevant detracts from the central theme of the movie. There’s a very interesting story about how different generations deal with the burden of racism; yet, it’s buried underneath so many layers of pop culture and pop-politics which ultimately muddle the story and burden it. Lee Daniels “The Butler” isn’t a bad movie, but it feels like a missed opportunity.
Starring Forrest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack and Robin Williams
Directed by Lee Daniels