Lee Daniels' The Butler
Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking. Two hours, 12 minutes.
Publication date: Publication Date Aug. 16, 2013
Review by Peter Canavese
Actor-screenwriter Danny Strong skates along the surface of eight decades of American history with his script "inspired by the true story" of Eugene Allen, a member of the White House serving staff for 34 years. It's easy to understand the real-life-Forrest-Gump-ian appeal: Oscar winner Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, who -- as Allen did -- serves the administrations of Eisenhower, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Ford, Nixon and Reagan.
You would think that would make for some really great stories, but the source material -- Wil Haygood's Washington Post article "A Butler Well Served by This Election" -- is more poem than drama in describing an African-American man who served eight white presidents, was very good at his job and lived to see Obama elected.
The film grasps for greater significance by "enhancing" Allen's life. After a framing device, "The Butler" takes us to 1926 Macon, Ga., for Cecil's "origin story." The 8-year-old cotton picker learns to shut up and serve following a tragedy that writes him a ticket from the fields to the house. Out on his own, Cecil gets further instruction from a hotel waiter (Clarence Williams III) before landing a gig in the White House pantry.
Once Cecil is installed as a butler, the film broadens its focus to include his home life with wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and sons Louis (David Oyelowo, convincingly playing boy to man) and Charlie (Isaac White, then Elijah Kelley). Here, Strong invents domestic strife in the forms of alcoholism and infidelity for Gloria, and rebellion through political protest for Louis.
While Cecil plays witness to history (he's told, "You hear nothing, you see nothing you only serve"), Louis makes history: at the Woolworths' lunch counter, as a Freedom Rider, in Memphis with MLK, in Oakland with the Black Panthers and on the steps of the South African embassy, protesting apartheid. In this way, the film barrels through a lesson in the civil rights movement by pitting Cecil's quiet dignity against Louis' aggressive protest.
That comparison is a point of interest, and it leads to a memorable scene in which an argument over the social significance of Sidney Poitier stands in for the tension between father and son, who cannot help but think of his father, a cog in the system, as being something of a shuffling, bowing Uncle Tom. But, despite admirable work from Whitaker and Winfrey, the film is nearly crushed by its own symbolic weight and its contrivance of a central character arc from keeping one's head down to learning to stand up.
Oprah's presence brings to mind her onetime theme song of choice, with its line "I'm every woman; it's all in me." Daniels wants his film to be every episode in African-American history, so Cecil hovers over Eisenhower as he contends with Faubus, Reagan as he contends with apartheid, with almost everything in between (the film comically brushes off Ford and Carter) and pseudo-slavery and Obama as bookends. That's the gig, I guess, but we're still left wishing for more truth and less legend.