Published Aug 15, 2013As presented, Lee Daniels' star-studded, multi-generational epic of truncated American Civil Rights history, The Butler, is an easily interpreted political argument. It's an emotionally driven documentation of the fight against subjugation, utilizing a framing device and broad character conflicts to make it a twee narrative rather than a ramshackle, overly sweeping documentary.
As written by Danny Strong (the scribe behind the similarly observed Recount), this effective, but woefully contrived drama takes the Forrest Gump approach to storytelling, utilizing the titular cipher — here, a slave turned butler named Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) — to observe a complex tapestry of historical events unfolding around him.
Although based loosely on the life of Eugene Allen, many liberties stretch this story from the cotton fields of Macon, Georgia in the '20s up to the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. Cecil (a slave that witnesses the murder of his father and the raping of his mother by white men) eventually learns the ways of domestic service. Sent out on his own as a coming-of-age journey, the theft of pastries pushes him into the good graces of a prestigious local butler that teaches him the craft and who eventually recommends him for roles that subsequently land him in the White House during the Eisenhower (Robin Williams) years.
Amidst the endless array of montages quickly guiding us through his trainings and acclamation to fellow staffers (Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, primarily), we also get a sense of Cecil's physical, and non-physical, absence at home, with wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo).
Significant Civil Rights events fuel the exposition spewing out of the mouths of various presidents — Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Nixon (John Cusack) and Reagan (Alan Rickman) — reiterated on the news highlights that Gloria watches, reacting as emotionally and dramatically as possible in close-up (demonstrating Daniels' sycophantic tendencies).
As a work of pacing, utilizing formulas and the interspersing of informational, structurally necessary montages with quiet moments of intensity, focusing on acting and the pointed pronunciation of profound dialogue, The Butler is exceptional. As manipulative and ridiculous — every president shares a telling, character-defining moment with Cecil and Cecil alone — as it is, there is a whirlwind of inspiration and feeling projected from this story, doing as intended by reminding us just how profoundly disturbing our collective history of ignorance and discrimination really is.
As a work of art, The Butler is quite embarrassing, featuring characters that can be summarized in brief anecdotal form and conflicts that exist only to reiterate the thesis statement and some rather redundant political assertions. While the eventual deterioration of the relationship between Cecil and his son does hold some intensity on its own — the dinner scene where he brings home a classless, belching girlfriend (Yaya Alafia) is priceless — the overtly argued ideological difference is presented with ultimate condescension.
Louis (a young freedom fighter and eventual Black Panther, who engages in rallies to remove segregation in public locales and spends more time in jail than out) doesn't respect his father's decision to serve the white man. Contrarily, some African-American academics suggest that, while not exactly ideal, the role of the butler helped debunk most of the negative stereotypes whites asserted about blacks, being a reliable, hard-working, professional role, with a constant air of dignity.
It's an interesting argument that helps give this century-long bout of name-dropping ("Oh, look, it's Jane Fonda playing Nancy Reagan!") some sense of purpose beyond heavy-handed histrionics. But it's also painfully obvious and reiterated too overtly and pointedly to leave this desperate awards hopeful with a great deal of integrity by the time the make-up artists are struggling to make everyone look decades older than they are.
Of course, since we're looking at a story seeking to reach as wide an audience as possible, preaching the word of tolerance to the masses, this lack of subtlety and the absurdist convenience of it all are understandable. While most films of this nature are completely devoid of humour, Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character makes regular jokes about fornicating with a woman that defecates during orgasm. This was almost as surprising as having to admit that Oprah actually does a good job with her character. (eOne)