Review: ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler,’ A Civil Rights Allegory With Humor and Heart

Forest Whitaker in 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' (The Weinstein Company)
Forest Whitaker in ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ (The Weinstein Company)

More stirring and provocative than might be expected from its schematic premise, Lee Daniels’ The Butler comes alive in a bravura sequence that compares and contrasts the service offered by the dignified titular character in the White House as his college-age son couragously endures persecution in furtherance of the civil rights movement in the South.

Until that moment, the movie is as stiff, unbending, and predictable as the tuxedo worn by Cecil Gaines as he carries out his duties. Cecil (played by Michael Rainey Jr. as a boy) survives an impoverished childhood on a cotton farm, where he has learned that to talk back to a white person is to risk death. Then, as a teenager (played by Aml Ameen) who has fled home during the Great Depression, he endures hardships before stumbling onto a job as a butler, where he is meticulously trained by Maynard (Clarence Williams III) in the ways of a paid servant, always deferential to the (white) paying customers.

In 1957, Cecil (now played by Forest Whitaker) is in his late 30s and a married man with two sons. He is offered a job as a butler in the White House, which he happily accepts, and proceeds to serve in the administrations of Presidents Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liv Schriber), Nixon (John Cusack), Ford, Carter, and Reagan (Alan Rickman). Meanwhile, his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) develops a serious drinking problem and falls into the arms of next-door neighbor Howard (Terrence Howard); his older son Louis (David Oyelowo) reacts to the rampant racism so prevalent in the nation and joins the civil rights movement.

The script by Danny Strong (HBO’s Sarah Palin movie Game Change) takes many liberties with the true story of Eugene Allen, who worked at the White House through eight presidential administrations. (Will Haygood’s article in The Washington Post is credited as the source material.) The fictional constructs are, initially, somewhat annoying, but the moment they reach an apparent crescendo is also the point when the aforementioned bravura sequence kicks things into a higher emotional gear. From there, it becomes much easier to see the film as providing a rare (for American cinema) consideration of the civil rights movement from the point of view of African-Americans, rather than the more common Caucasian rendering, as in Mississippi Burning, to cite an especially egregious example.

Undeniably, The Butler carries more than a whiff of Forrest Gump / You Are There in its coincidental placement of Cecil and his son Louis at key moments in American history. It’s too eager to tell, rather than show, a proclivity that it then abandons from time to time, with no apparent reason, leaving gaping holes in the development of characters over the years. And it’s hard not to feel that the role of Gloria was pumped up solely to attract and/or accommodate a well-known actress, without really delving into the role of women during the era, except in the most superficial terms.

Yet the film also provides important context in its two-pronged approach to the ongoing struggle for civil rights for all people. Newsreel footage reminds that, yes, the events portrayed may have been dramatized, but African-Americans were treated as sub-humans; shot and lynched; held in ongoing contempt, fear, and poverty; spit upon and beaten and tortured and imprisoned unjustly for hundreds of years. The Butler may best be considered as a stinging allegory, softened and sweetened with humor so as to make the bitter medicine a little easier to swallow.

Whitaker and Oyelowo are the rocks upon which the film is built, and they are sturdy, strong, and sympathetic, providing a foundation that’s needed for a multitude of actors in cameo appearances to play against. This is a film that may appear superficial, but is actually deeper than it looks.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler opens wide throughout the Metroplex on Friday, August 16.

Photo credit: Anne Marie Fox © 2013 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

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