When you walk down the street, what do you see? Cell phones and stop lights. A Starbucks on every corner. Maybe a bus. Does it ever cross your mind that a half century ago, African Americans wouldn’t be welcome in that coffee shop? Could be harassed and persecuted if they tried to vote in this month’s primaries? Would have to sit in the back of the M72?
Nope. Me neither.
Where his first film, Precious, painted an ugly picture of abusive urban life, Lee Daniel’s latest effort aims to shed light on a bigger, more historic injustice. While the movie maintains the melodrama of a Lee Daniel’s feature, the end result is an effective one. By combining legal dealings and familial strife, all through the eyes of a man taught to serve, The Butler paints a stark picture of 20th century race relations in America.
The Butler’s real name is Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a Georgia plantation worker who, after some traumatic events, is “brought inside” to learn the trade of being a house servant. Through hard work and some deft script writing, Cecil works his way into an appointment as a butler for the White House. There he learns about African American struggles through the overheard conversations of over four decades of presidential administrations. Of course his job at Pennsylvania Ave causes some stress at home, particularly with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and his black power son, Louis (David Oyelowo).
The first and most striking issue with The Butler is the contrived script, designed to cram melodrama down the audience’s throats with a chimney sweep brush. The story’s core is the dichotomy between Cecil’s subservience and David’s rebellion against it. Some of the film’s best moments involve that clash of ideals and when it works, it’s striking.
Unfortunately, there’s a ton of emotional filler to wade through. Like a bad episode of Good Times, nothing is working out for the Gaines family: Gloria drinks too much, her neighbor Howard (Terrence Howard) is a sloshed sleezeball and the boys are pulling away. These side stories, intended to inject empathy for the family, only bog the movie down and distract from the main theme. The characters also spend a good amount of time telling us how they feel through voiceover. Combined with pacing issues, unrealistic encounters (it’s hard to swallow every time Cecil walks into the Oval Office, they’re talking about racial issues) and a 130 minute run time that feels like three hours, the film is bloated and weighed down.
Luckily for filmgoers, the cast is across the board great. Whitaker in particular is wonderful as Cecil, giving a stoically powerful performance. Without his strong work, the movie would have become a Lifetime special. Oprah also shines as Gloria and while she doesn’t quite have the material Whitaker has, she does very well with what she’s given. The director also inserts real footage of historic struggles throughout the piece and while much of it is history class film reel we’ve see millions of times, it reinforces the notion of the film’s historical reality.
Of course, that’s the whole point of Lee Daniel’s The Butler. We often forget our sordid history of racial inequality as if it happened a century ago in some Social Studies book. The movie not only reminds us there was once a time, not so long ago, when blacks couldn’t sit at a lunch counter, it does so using an interesting, all seeing central character. Despite the muddy slog of the script and some jarring pacing, The Butler succeeds on the back of its finely tuned cast and award deserving lead. A welcome addition to the end of summer movie scene.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Jersey born, New York based and Austin bound, Bill Tucker is a writer of short fiction, film reviews and articles across a variety of media. He currently writes bi-monthly reviews for Pantheon Magazine and his micro fiction story, K, was recently accepted for publication in Solarcide’s flash fiction compilation, Flash Me. When not writing, he works as an IT Trainer for a fashion software company. Check out more of his work atwww.thesurrealityproject.com.