Lee Daniels has cultivated something special with "The Butler", the drama written by Danny Strong adapted from a Washington Post story on Eugene Allen, a butler who served under eight different U.S. presidents at The White House. Absorbing and powerful, "The Butler" defines the pathways to a better America in the shape of the challenges of a father and son.
Forest Whitaker is Cecil Gaines, an African-American who endures the murder of his father at the hands of a white man on the cotton fields of a plantation in 1920s Macon, Georgia. Cecil is born into slavery and racism, called a "n----r" so many times he probably thought it was his name. Brought into the slave house as "compensation" for his father's death by plantation matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) young Cecil is taught to serve the whites of the house. This turning point for Cecil leads to a serving job at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, raising his and his family's economic station.
Cecil's individual triumph is immediate, but what of blacks at large? Mr. Daniels' film exposes the myth (and dilemma) alive in some quarters of America today -- that because one black person is highly successful (Oprah, Obama) or have "made it" the group has as a whole, and the racial climate in the country is far better because of it.
As Cecil -- a dutiful, respectful and non-threatening black man -- elevates his status serving presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan his confrontational son Louis (David Oyelowo) fights to overhaul the racial injustices American society inflicts upon blacks. The parallels are effective, akin to and symbolic of the dynamic between Dr. King and Malcolm X: Cecil has a front-row seat to the ugly racist banter among whites as he serves them and appeals to non-violent restraint. Louis meanwhile speaks truth to power and to his parents, including alcoholic mother Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), whom he declares is "the best mother a son could have." (As a real-life parallel of afflictions Malcolm X's mother was confined to a mental home in the latter stages of her life.)
Mr. Daniels' film, one that marks his finest hour as a director, spotlights a coming-of-age journey for Cecil and Louis, and by extension America. Throughout "The Butler" commonality and complexity unite blacks and whites. The violence of the volatile times in the 1950s and 60s also unites them. A flier Louis has contains a photo of the brutalized face of Emmitt Till, a face exposed at his mother Mamie Till's demand. Hours after JFK is assassinated we see Jackie Kennedy still in her blood-splattered outfit. (In the film Ms. Kennedy says, "I want the world to know what they did to my husband", words similar to Ms. Till's in 1956.)
My only wish for the often oblivious-to-history iPhone generation was that Mr. Daniels had displayed a photo of Trayvon Martin as a corollary and parallel to Mr. Till in reinforcing the truism that the battle for racial equality and justice for blacks in America continues despite the emergence of President Obama. "The Butler" was filmed in mid-to-late 2012, months after Mr. Martin was shot dead in Florida in February last year.
Cecil's and Louis' approaches to change and justice in America converge just as Dr. King's and Malcolm's did. Louis's younger brother Charlie (Elijah Kelley) is the median voice of these two. When Charlie goes off to fight for the U.S. in Vietnam he charges Louis with fighting against his country as a Black Panther. Charlie, however, gets this wrong, for in reality both he and Louis are fighting for their country, fighting to make it better, as is Cecil, who, as one character points out, is a subversive figure. The director makes the point well: that the quest for a better America on a social and political level is fought from the inside and outside of the system.
Blacks in "The Butler" unabashedly opine about blacks as much as they do whites. In one of the film's few redundancies a dinner table scene evoking "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" (except with Louis and a black woman) has Louis assailing Sidney Poitier as a tool of white appropriation, service and comfort. Gloria then mentions Stanley Kramer's film, as if viewers needed the reminder. In the 1960s Mr. Poitier was more or less embraced by white audiences at a time when some blacks expressed skepticism about him, and his genuineness as a black man on a white stage called Hollywood, even as he took positive roles. This conversation within the black community is ongoing, whether it centers on filmmaker Tyler Perry, or Cuba Gooding (one of this film's stars) for his onstage Oscar jig in 1997 or Ving Rhames and his giving his Golden Globe award to Jack Lemmon several years ago.
The "genuineness" examination is applied to Cecil. Cecil, the kind of invisible man Ralph Ellison once wrote about, is admired by White House officials. Whites respect him, including the slave-owning matriarch. Cecil spends more than 30 years serving. Cecil gets little respect from Louis and thus a lack of acceptance. Whites are clearly more accepting of Cecil than even his own son is. As I thought of Cecil's "genuineness" as a black man as viewed by other blacks in "The Butler" I also thought of President Obama and some whites who constantly question his "genuineness" as an American.
As graceful as it is rugged, "The Butler" shows the artistry of Cecil at work - the methodical, chess-like approach to preparing a dinner table for a special White House occasion. It is pure tactic and strategy, even battle plan. In an R-rated edition of this film one might envision such scenes punctuated by Cecil literally sticking a fork in one of the nattily-attired white guests he serves a steak to. Everything leads to imagining that type of horror, and it is in Mr. Daniels' power of suggestion in the most innocent and subtle of images and explicit, jarring ones that "The Butler" stirs, elevating its incisiveness as a movie experience. "Chameleon Street", Wendell B. Harris's acerbic film about a true story of a black man who assumed multiple roles as a fake lawyer, banker and surgeon among many other people, is the same type of film in this regard. The point is, you are often on edge while watching "The Butler". And you are inspired. You laugh. You cry, and a piece of you dies inside.
It's easy to think of Cecil, a smart, clever man as a Steppin' Fetchit type but Mr. Fetchit too was a very smart figure who in his day served whites as comforter and an entertainer, as did Hattie McDaniel ("it's better to play a maid than to be a maid") and early 20th century minstrel show star Bert Williams. These and many others were indeed subversives. They were smarter than they let on. They knew what their role was and what they were doing. They were skilled. Cecil is depicted by Mr. Daniels in the very same way. If he practiced any subversion today Cecil would have been the man who turned on a video camera to surreptitiously record Mitt Romney last year to a rich clientele talking about Americans in a disparaging way.
"The Butler" is a necessary, instructive experience, one bound for Oscar contention next January.
Complete review of "The Butler" here
Also with: Lenny Kravitz, Robin Williams, Clarence Williams III, Yaya Alafia, Nelsan Ellis, Minka Kelly, John Cusack, Mariah Carey, Liev Schreiber, Colman Domingo, Aml Ameen, Jesse Williams, Alex Pettyfer.
"The Butler", now playing across North America, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking. The film's running time is two hours and 12 minutes.