Between the dramatic and violent content of the film’s setting and a long history of the depiction of the Civil Rights Movement in film, there are several paths in which Lee Daniels ‘The Butler’ could have gone astray. Instead, delivered through a meticulously restrained and thoughtful approach, ‘The Butler’ creates a genuinely authentic style of storytelling. ‘The Butler’ creates a narrative that encourages audiences to feel and experience the story rather than just shown it. How the film highlights drama and handles scenes of violence could be its most lasting contribution to the medium and a glimpse into a rising trend in movies.
‘The Butler’ is unquestionably well-acted. It is the strength of the performances that allow the film to traverse the mire of conflict both in the lives of its characters and the larger political context that they inhabit. What makes these performances stand out and allows the film to cover so much material (both expositional and emotional) is how reserved and held back the performances are. Forest Whitaker best encapsulates this. To say he delivers an understated performance would be, for lack of a better word, understated.
Whitaker’s performance rarely deviates from an early-established subdued-yet-steadfast tone that perfectly blends with the personality of his character. Whitaker as Cecil Gates rarely breaks from his predetermined composure and creates the portrait of a man that is continually working with all of his might to keep his head up and continue moving forward. There are plenty of moments of intensity and drama wherein Gates refrains from showing the slightest reaction and continues on through the scene. It becomes quite clear that this decision not only delivers an incredibly nuanced performance, but also is the keystone to the overarching narrative and how the material is delivered to the audience.
In this way, Gates is an unusual central character. He is clearly established as the character we are to follow and our narrator, but the film also makes it clear that we as an audience are not meant to see the world through his eyes or necessarily share his point of view. As stated, we rarely see (hear through voiceover) how Gates feels about things. His narration is mostly used to ground the audience in the context of a scene and where the character is in the course of his life.
As a narrator, Gates actually poses more questions than he gives answers. What this allows us is to have a central character to take us through the story and sympathize with, but opens up the overall experience to depict the emotions and perspectives of several characters. Every character in ‘The Butler’ is multilayered and human. Of the core cast, there are no bad guys, no absolute villains, just people trying to find their way through some of the most complicated and volatile times in civil rights history. ‘The Butler’ is a complex, multifaceted character study that is only achieved through the artistic approach to Gates character.
One of the reoccurring concepts throughout the movie is the idea of all black men having two faces, the one they show to white people and their real face. This concept is carried throughout the entire film and the truth of Cecil Gates is that the line begins to blur from there being a face he puts on just for his job to one he wears all the time. This struggle is rarely overtly pointed out to the audience, but truly informs every scene of the movie and Gates’ ultimate decision toward the film’s end.
As an audience member you can feel the tension and energy grow each time something happens to Gates and he doesn’t react. The filmmakers do this to build the tension of not just a single scene, but to inform the whole movie. Throughout the entire film Gates loses his composure only in a few brief moments. One such moment is an explosive dinner scene where as an audience member you not only see, but more importantly feel, how close Gates is to the edge of relinquishing control. It’s in scenes such as this that you can feel the tension and energy that has been building throughout the entire movie.
‘The Butler’ is one of the year’s most thoughtful films and after proper reflection may extend beyond that. Every choice between the actors’ performances, to the depiction of action is done so in service of the overarching narrative and to inform the film in its entirety.
‘The Butler’ contains numerous scenes of action and dramatic conflict that are all handled the same way. The audience is shown the characters experience leading up to the climax and then we skip forward to dealing with the aftermath. Whether it is the Freedom Riders bus being firebombed, Kennedy’s assassination, or Gates receiving word of his youngest son’s death, all of these moments are delivered in the same fashion.
This allows the filmmakers to highlight the drama and the most important parts of the action, namely what the characters are experiencing and their choices. The audience receives the most provocative imagery and emotional drama and can fill in the blanks by imagining the parts in between. This maximizes the tension and creates a far more dynamic film compared to the flatness of showing everything. The audience remains emotionally invested in many characters without getting over-stimulated and checking out due to overly intense violence and drama.
Everything from the depiction of action to the performances is visually held back and reserved with intent because, unlike so many other movies, ‘The Butler’ wants us to experience this story and this time in history by feeling what these characters went through.