The premise of Lee Daniels’ The Butler is undeniably fascinating. The movie tells the story of the civil rights movement through the eyes of a White House butler who served seven presidents from Eisenhower all the way up to Reagan. It’s too bad then that this beautiful story, despite some very touching and powerful moments, is ultimately wasted in a film that flounders under the weight of its sloppy direction, distracting stunt casting, saccharine script, and laughable contrivances. Instead of being the powerful historical epic it aims to be, this movie is the Forrest Gump of the civil rights movement.
Loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African American man whose 34-year tenure on the White House kitchen staff was subject of a lengthy Washington Post profile, Lee Daniels’ The Butler opens in the early 1920s on a cotton plantation in the Jim Crow South. After his mother (Mariah Carey – stunt casting #1) is raped, and father murdered by an insane farmer (Alex Pettyfer – stunt casting #2), young Cecil James is trained to be a house slave by the plantation’s kindly matriarch Annabelle (Vanessa Redgrave – stunt casting #3). When he comes of age, Cecil packs his belongings and leaves the house in search of a better life in Washington D.C.
As the years go by, Cecil, now played by Forest Whitaker in a fine performance that is unfortunately characterized by passiveness, marries the feisty Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and with whom he raises two sons – the rebellious Louis (David Oyelowo) and the straight-laced Charlie (Elijah Kelly). His skills at service more refined, Cecil moves up to better gigs, eventually scoring a job at a ritzy D.C. hotel frequented by Washington politicos. Cecil’s quick wit and ability to say the right things are immediately rewarded, and quickly makes the jump to the White House.
It’s at this point that the film splits into two narrative threads – going back and forth between them like a rotating time-glass. The first of these, which centers on Cecil’s time as a butler, is the self-important, preachy one in which he plays horse whisperer to every President from Eisenhower on, bearing witness and/or seemingly influencing their decisions in regards to many of the most important events in the U.S. civil rights movement.
He’s there when Ike (Robin Williams – stunt casting #4) decides to deploy troops to assist the Little Rock Nine; he’s in the room when President Kennedy (James Marsden – stunt casting #5) first witnesses the brutality of the race riots on television; he’s with Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber – stunt casting #6) when the President contemplates signing the Voting Rights Act; and he sits down for a chat with Nixon (John Cusack – worst casting of the year) on the eve of his resignation. He even plays a part when Reagan and wife Nancy (Alan Rickman & Jane Fonda – both spot-on) ask him for his opinion on apartheid.
Cecil’s President whispering is cross-cut with Louis’ Gumpian journey through every major event in the civil rights movement. While Oyelowo, a fantastic up-and-coming British actor, is an appealing presence, delivering a grounded and multi-layered performance, the silly, contrived script by Danny Strong undermines his work. For example, Louis is shown to be one of the members of the historic sit-ins. He’s also on one of the Freedom Rider buses. Later on, he’s a follower of Malcolm X, and then of Martin Luther King. He then goes through a phase of being a Black Panther (afro and all) before running for political office, and finally becoming an apartheid activist. At the rate he was going, I half-expected him to show up in archival footage of the Obama campaign, downing Dr. Peppers the way Forrest Gump did.
To Daniels’ credit, the civil disobedience sequences and violent clashes are among the film’s most stirring moments. The filmmaker, who has never been one to shy away from heavy-handed imagery and blatant emotional manipulation (see Precious, The Paperboy), convincingly choke-slams viewers into submission with shocking sequences of violence committed on blacks in the turbulent 50s and 60s. There’s also a scene in which Whitaker gives a long speech about concentration camps in the United States. This is juxtaposed against shots of slave homes on plantations in Georgia.
Thankfully, Daniels counters the self-righteousness by infusing his trademark campy humor into Cecil’s home life. Much of this comes courtesy of Winfrey whose alcoholic, long-suffering Gloria acts as the connecting thread between the dour opposing father-son plots. Winfrey, who hasn’t had this juicy of a role since Beloved, dominates the film as the larger-than-life, acid-tongued Gloria – dishing out attitude and love in equal spades. The performance is just enough of a good thing to make you forget she’s another one of Daniels’ preposterous stunt casting decisions. Aiding Winfrey are Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, and Terrence Howard who all bring levity to the film in small but pivotal supporting roles. Their lively ensemble work is source of most of the movie’s genuinely moving and honest moments. It’s unfortunate then that this fine work is sullied by the shameless schmaltz and preachy historical movie tropes that permeates the rest of the movie.