Lee Daniels’ The Butler is some serious, probably effective Oscar bait. It is also — these things so often go together — audience-pandering History Lite. Forest Whitaker, as a butler who serves at the White House through eight Presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan, gives a dazzling performance; he is by far the film’s greatest strength. But even he can’t make up for a movie calculated to spoon feed viewers a civil rights lesson that lets us feel good about the country’s progress, without adding much substance or nuance to the conversation.
The film is based on a 2008 Washington Post article about Eugene Allen, the real-life model for the butler. Danny Strong’s screenplay borrows his career and fictionalizes his personal life, turning him into Cecil Gaines. As a boy in the 1920’s, Cecil was raised on a cotton plantation, where his family was shattered by racist violence that might have happened during slavery. Cecil’s own son grows up to be a 1960’s Freedom Rider. There’s already too much Forrest Gump (and that is not meant as a compliment) in burdening one character with that much history.
Brought in from the field as a boy by the plantation’s well-meaning but still racist owner (Vanessa Redgrave), Cecil is taught how to serve white people, a lesson that echoes Ralph Ellison’s powerful metaphor of the invisible man: “The room should feel empty when you’re in it.” Eventually he makes his way to Washington, marries Oprah Winfrey — or a woman named Gloria played by the overshadowing Oprah — and enters service at the White House.
The presidents may be the film’s most attention-getting element, but the focus stays on Gaines and his family. Whitaker’s character is a man of great clarity and integrity, and also a man of his generation, who fights racism in his own way. When his older son, Louis, keeps getting arrested as a civil rights activist instead of going to college, Gaines is so distraught he practically disowns him. When he tells his son, “I’m working for the white man now,” to give his family a better future, we see he is not a dupe or a coward as Louis’ generation might have it; he is following the best guidelines of his conscience.
The film is most successful at moments like that, when we see what drives Cecil. Early on, he gets a lesson about the different faces black people of his era wear: there is one they show to get ahead with white people, and another, truer, version they use among themselves. As Cecil’s friends, two equally devoted White House butlers, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz do a lot to illustrate that.
They have to do a lot with very little, though. Apart from Cecil, every character is underwritten or caricatured. Louis goes from Freedom Rider to Black Panther to political candidate, his own Gump-through-history trajectory. Even the fantastic David Oyelowo can’t do much except make Louis intense. And it’s not entirely Winfrey’s fault that audiences may find it hard to get past the inevitable “That’s Oprah smoking a cigarette!”
She gradually becomes more believable as Gloria, who is proud of her husband but so neglected while he works long hours that she starts drinking and has an off-camera fling with a ne’er do-well neighbor played by Terrence Howard. (On Letterman, Oprah and Dave talked about the ambiguity of that relationship, but to me their conversation doesn’t leave any doubt.) She dances through decades of wigs and costumes, from the 50’s to 2008, and has her own Oscar-bait scenes; in a frequently-shown clip she slaps Louis’ face. But an even stronger moment is silent, when the family experiences a tragedy and her face is a mask of fierce, believable anger.
You’ll see that tragedy coming far away. Strong’s screenplay for Game Change was so trenchant, politically and socially — I would love to know went on behind the scenes to make this film so blunt.
And those presidents are a gallery of distracting stunt-casting. There’s Robin Williams as Eisenhower, looking more like Harry Truman. John Cusack’s Nixon comes with a fake ski nose. Alan Rickman is a credible Reagan, though. And in a tiny role (one speaking scene) Jane Fonda disappears into Nancy Reagan in a way that Oprah never quite vanishes into Gloria.
Near the end, Cecil and Gloria’s pure joy at Obama’s candidacy is undeniably affecting. But the film borrows that inspiring feeling from the 2008 election itself (complete with a news clip of Obama) events we all lived through and can layer on the film.
As a director, Daniels has been all over the place. Precious was a potent story of character and society, and a masterpiece of acting. The Paperboy was a self-indulgent mess. His most mainstream movie yet, The Butler (or Lee Daniels’ The Butler as Warner Brothers’ suit against the Weinstein Company caused it to be clumsily retitled) is watchable and easy to admire — and that self-congratulatory ease is exactly the problem.