I think it’s only fitting that director Lee Daniels should follow-up his multi-styled, emotionally unstable love letter to bad taste, The Paperboy (2012), with the multi-styled, emotionally varied love letter to high-mindedness that is Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013). Daniels intrigues me as a filmmaker and I find him to be one of the most electrifying voices in American movies today. The mark of a great filmmaker is not the avoidance of bad movies, necessarily; it’s the avoidance of uninteresting ones. I’ve yet to see a Lee Daniels movie that didn’t interest me a great deal. The Paperboy, all sweat and bravado, flirted a line between exhilarating and unwatchable. The Butler always has the potential to be patronizing or whitewashed drivel. They both avoid the pitfalls because of Daniels’ uncommon confidence in his storytelling, his control of the tone and his plethora of visual styles, mixing and matching with skill. Some find his visual language unfocused and needlessly random; it’s never done anything to me but put me on the edge of my seat.
The Butler chronicles the long career of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) a man who learned as a boy that speaking out could mean your life. At the age of 8 he saw his mother violated by the owner of the land his family worked on. After the incident, his father spoke out to the landowner and demanded satisfaction and was promptly shot, shot by a man who had no need to fear retribution. Cecil would spend the rest of his life equating demands with danger. With his parents removed from his life, Cecil was trained as a domestic by the mother of the very man who destroyed his family. He showed promise as a butler and in an extraordinarily short amount of time he went from the cotton fields to serving the president of the United States in the White House. From the Eisenhower to the Reagan administrations, Cecil was the best butler in the White House, serving seven presidents and watching the world change.
That world wasn’t changing fast enough for Cecil’s son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who spent his life enacting that change. While Cecil was preparing a dining room for a state dinner, Louis was participating in sit-ins in segregated restaurants. While Cecil served drinks to Kennedy (James Marsden), Louis was being harassed and arrested on the Freedom Rides. While Cecil was bringing dinnerware to Nixon (John Cusack), Louis was active in the Black Panthers. Cecil saw the Civil Rights Movement in terms of what the powers-that-be would give him; Louis was out to take all he was owed. This generational divide bears more than it can handle when Cecil throws Louis out of the house and out of his life after Louis denigrates Cecil’s profession, calling him an Uncle Tom and, almost worse, saying that Sidney Poitier is an Uncle Tom as well. The rest of the movie is dedicated to the two men learning from each other, Cecil gaining the confidence to be more assertive, Louis recognizing that the trails he blazes had to be created by those who went before him.
In its structure, the movie resembles Forrest Gump (1994) as Cecil navigates the mainstream à la Forrest and Louis is mired in the counterculture like Jenny. The difference is that Louis’s choices are powered by threatening oppression and political anger and not drugs, and Cecil doesn’t bump into history with Clouseauian humor; he’s afforded his access to it through his competence and decency. It is similar to Gump, however, in its scope (Cecil will see his colleagues lynched, will lose a son in Vietnam and watch the election of a black president), its quick shifts from humor, poignancy and heartache, and its simplification of historical nuance. I don’t think this movie wants to be a serious examination of the Civil Rights Movement and, for the sake of the running time, a great bit of reductivism has to be forgiven, but this is no whitewashing parable. Its dangers are real, its images gruesome (there are more than a few arresting moments of the strange fruit of Southern trees), and its anger, which simmers throughout, is palpable.
What it does best is provide empathy for its two combatants. Cecil’s view is understandable, as he’s from a place where the idea of black power is so foreign that indignities and inequalities (like, say, which drinking fountain one uses) are inconsequential compared to death and unwarranted imprisonment. Louis, just as understandably, can’t abide by any injustice and looks with shame as his father makes himself invisible for the people he serves, who in return do little for Cecil. The message at the center of the movie is one of understanding, not necessarily between the races—I don’t think even Lee Daniels has the gall to suggest an answer to that riddle (though, in the movie’s most objectionable sequence, it seems to suggest that the election of Barack Obama somehow ended racism, a trope I find dangerous and regrettable)—but between generations, an acknowledgment that a compromise needs to be found between “things are better than they ever were” and “that isn’t good enough.” Cecil and Louis eventually find that compromise but not without a lot of pain.
Yet, what lingers about The Butler is how entertaining it is, how breezily it tells its story without rendering toothless its important themes. Daniels’ ironclad control of the tone (and some of the best editing of the year) guide it safely from moments of terrible intensity to leavening moments of humor or slapstick. Taking a cue from the early days of Saturday Night Live, the movie casts the presidents not because the actors resemble them in looks but in demeanor. You might not think of Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower and I certainly don’t think of Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, and yet they give oddly affecting and wildly engaging portrayals. And while Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan might seem like a pointless dig, it’s actually kind of perfect. Speaking of perfection, Oprah Winfrey, as Cecil’s wife, Gloria, steals every scene she’s in and nearly makes off with the movie. Daniels does invests the time in her for a subplot about her drinking and some infidelity with a smooth but shiftless neighbor played by Terrance Howard, but it seems like she’s on screen more than she actually is. That’s the mark of a movie star. Her ability to suggest oceans of hurt and frustration with a husband she knows is good but hardly sees as magnificent (being fair, Whitaker, also great, completes a truly realistic and lived-in couple with Winfrey; together they are remarkable). Star power is a difficult thing to define, and I don’t think I’m scooping anyone by announcing that Oprah Winfrey has some kind of magnetism, but here’s hoping she gets to show it in movies more often.
The movie is imperfect (even for its sweep, it can’t be completely forgiven for its simple-minded elucidations), but it earns the right to be celebrated for the fact that it is American history told through a black lens. Cecil’s story isn’t told through his relationship with whites, though that is certainly part of his life. His arc is his own, his story his own, and it’s a loss for the whites he encounters that his story goes largely unnoticed. That’s rare in American movies, and Daniels is a rare talent.