DIRECTED BY: Lee Daniels
WRITTEN BY: Danny Strong
STARRING: Forrest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Elijah Kelly, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Terrance Howard, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams, Clarence Williams III
This movie has succulent, juicy Oscar bait written all over it. I mean it has everything, and I mean everything: racial issues, an all-star cast, politics (but not too much politics), and the incredible ability to sentimentalize history in a way that’d make Forrest Gump weep with patriotic joy. It’s even based on a true story…well, kind of…not really. It’s about a black butler that works at the white house, that’s about it. But hey, we don’t need “facts” to strategically and efficiently pull at the audience’s heartstrings, only the façade of facts is necessary! Now I’m not saying this is a movie specifically engineered to win Oscars (I’m merely implying it) but its Oscar bait elements do distract sometimes from what is otherwise a genuinely heartfelt and well-acted movie.
The story centers on Cecil Gaines, a man who rose from life on a plantation to being a butler at the White House. Over the course of some thirty odd years he witnesses various historical events from both within and without the Oval Office. That’s only half the story, however, because Cecil’s eldest son, Louis, comes into constant conflict with his father. He can’t abide by the injustices being done to black people in America, and to that end goes out to join various civil rights movements. In doing so, he’s largely throwing away the life his father so carefully built for him. This on top of complications and issues with his wife make it hard for Cecil to balance the two lives he leads: the one as a servant of the very establishment he should supposedly disdain, and the one with his family and friends when the fancy clothes come off. Probably this movies strongest act of social commentary is that of examining these conflicts between aspects of black society and identity in the civil rights movement rather than of racism in and of itself.
Of course, the anchor of all of this is the very strong performance from Forrest Whitaker in the title role. Given the nature of the character, it calls for someone who can exhibit what the butlers call their “two faces”: the show they put on for their employers, and the one they have in normal everyday life. What is so great about his performance is that even when he puts on his calm and reserved face, you can see in his eyes this sense of passion that drives him, the internal conflict that we’re privy to but the others don’t see. When that facade breaks late in the movie, it comes as the payoff to nearly two hours of building tension, and that release is both cathartic and dramatically potent in its execution. It also allows the reconciliation between the members of Cecil’s family to feel at least somewhat believable (even if it’s wrapped up just a bit too neatly). Using the scenes at the white house to pace and obscure the passage of time a bit also allows this family conflict to constantly be front and center even though it occurs over a period of decades.
The consequence of that, though, are that the escapades at the White House begin to act more like a backdrop to the personal conflict in Cecil’s family life than anything of particular substance. It doesn’t help that the appearances of the presidents act as little more than glorified cameos from horribly miscast actors who are probably in this movie so the marketing department had household names to put on the posters. I couldn’t tell you who was more miscast: Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, or Alan Rickman as Reagan. On top of being distractingly out of place, their appearances usually only act as exposition to give the spark notes version of the political climate of the time. This usually involves Cecil walking in at unusually critical moments in policy discussion at just the right moment so the audience can be privy to expository information. I do think it’s wise to put the more personal incidents and conflicts at the forefront, but that unfortunately causes the larger social commentary to be covered a bit too broadly to really say anything new about race or race relations in America. Maybe that wasn’t what it was trying to do, but it often felt like it was.
Does this make it a bit mawkish and sentimental? Yeah, it kind of does. Does it often try its hardest to pull every heartstring it possibly can, sometimes to the point of mood whiplash? Almost certainly. The Butler is hardly revolutionary as far as story and narrative go, and most of what it says has been said better (and more concisely) in a number of other movies. However, despite being so rough and broadly written, a lot of it is made up simply by how good the performances and the direction are. My guess is that it’s probably going to be up for a couple Oscars in a few months. After all, it is proving to be pretty popular (at least with general audiences). On my part, though, it’s hard not to see through the manipulative conceits it tries to pull, as well as the broad strokes it tends to take for the sake of pleasing an audience. In other words, in my mind The Butler is a solid film, but not a particularly remarkable one when all is said and done.