As a young man, Cecil Gaines is told that black people need to have two faces–their real one, and the one they show to white people. That is the spine of a film with the unwieldy title Lee Daniels’ The Butler (so named not because of Daniels’ vanity but legal issues). This is a powerfully moving film that fights with itself–is it a gritty look at the transformation of black America during the civil rights movement, or is it a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie with stunt casting?
I think the former eventually wins, and The Butler is a good movie, but it does constantly undermine itself with its often bizarre scenes set in the White House. Cecil Gaines, played as an adult by Forest Whitaker, will land a job there as a butler, spending thirty years under various administrations. Heeding the advice he got, he goes along to get along, remaining silent as the fate of his people are debated by presidents and their advisers.
His son, though (played excellent by David Oyelowo) wants to present only one face. He goes to college, becomes radicalized and becomes a freedom rider and then a Black Panther. This enrages his father, and the two do not speak for years. Their reconciliation at the end of the picture is very moving, and made me forget any of the gripes I had up until then.
If the film had been simply about the two men, it would have been a lot better. Frankly, the White House stuff is the least interesting, not helped by casting well-known actors as the presidents. Only James Marsden, as Kennedy, looks and acts like the man he plays. It’s a toss up as to whether John Cusack as Nixon or Alan Rickman as Reagan are more egregiously awful. The presidents are all kind to the black staff (though LBJ still calls them n*ggers) and Reagan, even while gutting civil rights legislation, expresses doubts to Gaines. I question that Ronald Reagan ever had moments of self-doubt or introspection.
What works is the arc of Oyelowo, even if he seems to be at all the key moments in civil rights history (did he really have to be in Memphis for King’s assassination?) A scene that intercuts between the staff preparing for a White House dinner and Oyelowo and compatriots sitting in at a diner is extremely effective. Another scene, in which he arrives for a family dinner in Black Panther regalia (his girlfriend, Yaya DaCosta, has a mighty ‘fro) that erupts in an argument over Sidney Poitier rings true (my father and grandfather once had a blow-up argument that was about baseball manager Billy Martin).
Also well done are the early scenes, when Cecil is a young boy on a cotton plantation. Slavery has been over for several generations, but black people have little freedom, and Cecil watches as his father is gunned down after daring to say “Hey,” to his boss after the white man raped his wife (played silently by Mariah Carey).
Daniels, who can go indulge in some crazy whims, keeps it relatively straight here. The performances by the principles, which include Oprah Winfrey as Whitaker’s wife and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as another butler, are fine, but I found Whitaker to be problematic, as I never felt he had a true bead on the man. He saw horrors as a young man, found success in a white man’s world, but also recognized injustices (he constantly fights for equal pay with the white staff) but I didn’t find the performance or the script ever really revealed what made the man tick.
Still, this film got to me and I recommend it.
My grade for Lee Daniels’ The Butler: B.