Lee Daniels’ The Butler is an engaging look through our nation’s racial history, but tries to cram in too much and often focuses on the wrong story over the course of its run time.
Inspired by a real life butler that served in the White House for over eight presidencies, The Butler (will not refer to it as Lee Daniels’ every time) also introduces a fair amount of historical fiction along the way. The story surrounding the butler himself, Cecil Gaines, is actually the least interesting element of the film, his two sons’ journeys through life, the elder one in particular, fill the film’s high points. As we parallel Cecil’s experiences observing our Presidents dealing with racial issues throughout history, his son, Louis is actively out there in the thick of it. You can see why his story is obviously more compelling.
That is the weird thing about this film actually, the whole conceit around “the butler” seems to be nothing more than a gimmick or hook for the marketing as the real story they want to tell is surrounding Louis. Everything that happens in the White House is hitting a check mark on racial history, everything around Louis attempts to take you into, and experience, that racial history and it is successful to a certain extent. Yes it touches on a lot of important events and addresses how short a time it has actually been since a large portion of our population and political system openly supported and violently abused minorities in this country, but it feels as surface level as that can feel. This isn’t the pinnacle of the civil rights movement on film by any means, but it often feels like it might have wanted to take a shot at doing so if it wasn’t for being locked into servicing the butler storyline half of the film. We see sit-ins, MLK, Malcom X is just off screen, the black panthers make an appearance, the freedom bus, mass protest marches, Louis is the Forrest Gump of the civil rights movement; minus the low IQ. But the film barely scratches any deeper than Forrest Gump did in its historical moments and that is a shame. While I think Daniels does a fine job of recreating and capturing the fear, anger and insanity of these times, a firm reminder on the racism that’s still very prevalent in our country, but I would love to see a film from him that fully digs into these people and the civil rights movement history.
The other side of the film is perfectly fine in its execution, but again the White House stuff is the least interesting material. Cecil’s influence on any of the social movements in this country is the same as his role as a butler, it’s as if he wasn’t even in the room. The best moments of the other half of the film are when Cecil is just shooting the shit with friends and family, and while it is kind of fun to see a bunch of actors get to play varying Presidents, I will take more of Oprah busting people’s balls any day of the week. The cast is really great in the film and to list everyone would be quite the undertaking. Oprah is a standout as Cecil’s wife as she is obviously having a blast and gets to show a lot of range, relishing those moments where she gets to play against her persona. David Oyelowo is the film’s star as Louis and he continues to be great in just about everything he does. When is he going to get a chance to be a star? He would be a great MLK by the way. Forest Whitaker is solid as Cecil, but sadly his material is the weakest in the film and he isn’t asked to do a whole lot. He shines when he is bouncing off Oprah, Oyelowo and the duo of Cuba Gooding Jr. & Lenny Kravitz as his fellow butlers, but this isn’t the meatiest role for him. Liev Schreiber is the standout of the Presidents, he briefly plays Lyndon B. Johnson, but as a whole everyone does a good job. Terrance Howard is delightfully scummy here as a family friend of the Gaines’, but Gooding Jr. steals almost every scene he is in across the board.
The Butler is an easy and informative watch, but there is one intriguing thought about the film that I think begs to be asked; did Lee Daniels wuss out on challenging the viewer? The film shows plenty of reprehensible behavior as a stark reminder of how little time we have become more civilized about race in this country, but the film also kind of cops out on the idea that there still is an issue today. A modern viewer who believes racism has more or less been diminished to nothing in recent years would walk away from this film unchallenged and the film almost confirms a couple tenants those types of people hold too; the Black Panthers were really bad and Obama’s Presidency proves racism is mostly over. The film doesn’t explicitly say these things, but I think that someone who was either ignorant enough or willing/wanting to read into those ideas goes un-rebuffed. For all the work Daniels puts into showing the plight of the Civil Rights Movement this almost seems like a glaring omission.
The Butler is a fine piece of historical fiction that has its focus in the wrong places. There is a potentially great movie buried in here, but what we get is ultimately a surface level recreation of the Civil Rights Movement. A Freedom Bus film would have been preferable to seeing a scene or two of Cecil interacting with each of our Presidents as they wrestled with the idea of making some of our countries big turning points on race, but that is what we mostly get. Still, the film is littered with great performances from an all-star cast and it is an easy watch that never bores even when its pace drags a bit from time to time.
The Butler is a B-