Watching “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”
“I’m going to see ‘The Butler’ on Monday,” I told a friend. “Feel free to join me.”
“I don’t really want to see that movie,” my friend said.
“Well, I don’t really want to see it, either,” I said.
“Then why are you going?” my friend asked.
I explained my position: The film has received mostly positive reviews, it’s almost sure to be nominated for Oscars and I was curious — people are watching it and enjoying it and talking about it, and I want to be in on the discussion. And there was also the possibility that “The Butler” might surprise me — that I might actually like the film.
And I did like the film! This is an emotionally involving, powerful film, a message movie that is never too preachy and is almost always entertaining. It’s melodramatic and sentimental, but not in a bad way — “The Butler” is the type of grand and epic film that Hollywood used to make, a touchingly earnest drama filled with laughter and tears.
Director Lee Daniels (“Precious”) is a skilled craftsman, and he’s aided immeasurably by a gifted cast that includes Forest Whitaker as butler Cecil Gaines. and Oprah Winfrey as his wife, Gloria Gaines. The supporting roles are also extremely well-cast: Cuba Gooding Jr. reminds everyone that, yes, he’s a very good actor as Gaines’ friend and fellow butler, David Oyelowo does fine work as Louis, Gaines’ rebellious son and Terrence Howard makes the most of his scenes as the Gaines’ ne’er-do-well neighbor. Even the stunt casting mostly works — I especially enjoyed Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan and James Marsden as John F. Kennedy.
Like “The Help,” “The Butler” tells the story of domestic servants. It opens when young Cecil’s father is murdered by the owner of the cotton field where he works (his “crime”: protesting when the owner rapes his wife), and the owner’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave) takes pity on the boy and decides to train him to work in the house. “I’ll teach you how to be a house n-----,” she says, in a fascinating scene that captures the complexity of race relations in the Jim Crow Deep South. There’s no denying that this woman is racist, and that she profits from an immoral and evil system — but her act of kindness changes Cecil’s life for the better. Cecil leaves home as a young man, eventually finding work at a ritzy Washington, D.C., hotel, which leads him to the White House, where he is hired as a butler. When asked whether he is political, Cecil replies that, no, he is not. This sets the stage for the central conflict of the story: his relationship with Louis, who heads off to Fisk University in Tennessee with the goal of joining the civil rights movement. Cecil wants his son to return to school and stay out of trouble; Louis believes his father is an Uncle Tom who is afraid of change.
“The Butler” is always compelling, though it bites off a bit more than it can chew. Cecil’s interactions with the various presidents he works for are fascinating — I particularly enjoyed a scene where Vice President Richard Nixon (John Cusack) visits the butlers in the kitchen, samples the pastry they are preparing and encourages them to vote for him. For the most part, the film ably cuts between scenes of Louis participating in sit-ins and Freedom Rides and Cecil hard at work with his fellow butlers; the section of the film where Louis and his friends are beat up at a diner while Cecil and the butlers prepare for a big White House dinner is actually a phenomenal bit of filmmaking.
However, the film handles the earlier years of the Civil Rights Movement better than the later years, when Louis and his girlfriend become Black Panthers. While the aims and motives of the civil rights protestors are always clear, the goals and underlying ideology of the Panthers are murkily presented. It’s as if Daniels just decided to showcase the Black Panthers as TOO EXTREME, rather than explore what they were all about; as a result, this section of the film plays a bit too much like a cartoon. Although I did enjoy the dinner scene where Cecil throws Louis out of the house for bad-mouthing Sidney Poitier — if my son returned home and bad-mouthed “In the Heat of the Night,” I’d probably throw him out, too.
(For a better, more complex take on the Black Panthers, check out the 2010 film “Night Catches Us.”)
“The Butler” is strongest when exploring various tensions within the black community — the tension between older, more cautious adults who didn’t want their children to get killed protesting segregation and younger adults who believed only radical action would bring about change, as well as the tension between “house negroes” and “field negroes.”
“The Butler” is on its way out of theaters, but this film is not going to fade from consciousness: We’ll be hearing about it when the Academy Awards are announced, and during the run-up to the awards. It isn’t my favorite film of the year, but it’s much better than I expected — rich, ambitious and deserving of success.
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