Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a tremendous film, a likely Oscar winner in several categories. I don’t know, but I suspect it’s also not quite the film Lee Daniels intended to make. I think he thought he was making a film celebrating the civil rights movement. What I found instead was a film celebrating those who found the civil rights movement, with its turmoil and violence and disruption, frightening.
This is one of those ‘based on a true story’ movies, and I would rather like to know how much license Daniels and his screenwriter, Danny Strong took. It follows thirty-plus years of the life of Cecil Gaines, a White House butler (there were six butlers at any given moment–‘butler’ seems to mean more or less what ‘footman’ means on Downton Abbey). The film is based on a newspaper article about an actual butler named Eugene Allen. I haven’t read the original newspaper article, but it seems clear there was a whole lot of fictionalizing going on here. Anyway, Forest Whitaker plays Gaines, in what is essentially a family story. Oprah Winfrey plays Gloria, Cecil’s alcoholic and neglected wife, and his oldest son, Louis, is played by the superb British actor David Oyelowo. A younger son, Charlie, less central to the story, is played by a fine young actor I’d never heard of, Elijah Kelley.
The film essentially tells two linking stories. First, we see Cecil working in the White House, quietly standing in the background as Presidents discuss world-shaking events and policies, omnipresent, pre-warming the cup the President’s coffee will be served in, handing out cookies to childrens’ White House tours, shining the President’s shoes and serving at state dinners. Meanwhile, Louis is a civil rights activist, in the middle of the very events Presidents are dealing with; demanding service at a Woolworth counter (in a shocking and powerful scene), riding a Greyhound bus for freedom, registering voters in Mississippi, working closely with Dr. King, briefly joining the Black Panthers with his Angela Davis-coiffed girlfriend Carol (Yaya Alafia).
It’s a powerfully effective structure, Hegelian in its impact, all the more so because Cecil’s thesis so completely rejects Louis’ anti-thesis, and their synthesis doesn’t come ’til the end. Because far from celebrating the civil rights movement, Cecil despises it. It terrifies him, and angers him, frankly.
And in the first scene of the movie, we see why. Young Cecil, taught to cotton farm by his father (David Banner), sees a white man, the rich and privileged scion of the farm where they’re sharecropping, striding along the field towards Cecil’s mother (couldn’t find her name on IMDB). The white guy directs the Mom to a shed, where he rapes her. The father briefly protests. And the white guy shoots him dead. And Vanessa Redgrave, the family matriarch (grandmother to the murderer), appalled, responds in the only way her class and position and culture allows–she tells young Cecil that she will train him to be a ‘house-nigger,’ a domestic servant.
That training is what allows Cecil to rise in the world, to become, eventually, a White House butler. But that primal early experience is what teaches him that the white world will forever be hostile and dangerous, and is best accommodated privately, quietly. Serve without questioning. Don’t make waves. Grow a second face, one smiling and servile. Stay in the background.
To Cecil, his son is a troublemaker without cause. He can go to college, he can afford to better himself, on Cecil’s dime, because of Cecil’s sacrifices and Cecil’s success. Instead, he throws it all away, gets thrown in jail repeatedly (and in Whitaker’s marvelous performance, every Louis jailing is like a physical blow, shame landing on his, the father’s shoulders). And fighting for what? An equality that will never be granted, rights that will never be recognized. He knows how little Presidents want to do about civil rights, because he knows, intimately, who Presidents are and how they act.
But, of course, to Louis, his father is the worst kind of accommodationist, an Uncle Tom, a traitor to his race. In one potent dinner table conversation, Cecil and Louis nearly come to blows over Sidney Poitier. Cecil admires and respects Poitier, sees him as who is genuinely making a difference in changing white perceptions of black people. To Louis, though, Poitier does nothing but provide white liberals with a comforting stereotype, an ideal based on nothing approaching reality. And of course, that’s also what Louis thinks of his father.
That’s the heart of the movie, the intersection between its parallel stories, the ferocious internecine conflict between a father and son who love each other and who cannot ever surrender or agree. And caught in the middle, Gloria, superbly played by Oprah. And I’m not kidding when I say that; she’s amazing in this film. Oprah Winfrey hasn’t really acted since Beloved in 1998–she’s done a lot of voice-over work, and of course she’s an important producer. But her performance in this film is a revelation. She’s torn apart, by the struggle in her family, by loneliness (because of the endless hours required of a White House servant), by alcoholism, by a short and loveless affair with a numbers-running neighbor (a wonderful brief gig for Terrence Howard).
Great actors abound in this film. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz are terrific as Cecil’s fellow butlers (and best friends). Nelsan Ellis (from True Blood), gets one short scene as Dr. King, and nails it–it’s a scene with maybe ten other actors, and the second you see him, you think ‘OMG, it’s Dr. King.’ And it’s a crucial scene as well, in which Dr. King points out that domestic servants (like Cecil) do tremendous good for the cause of civil rights, in a quiet understated way, because they model, for the white world, trustworthiness and competence. And Louis, in the room, nods ever so slightly. And then Dr. King steps out on the motel room balcony, and we realize where we are–room 306, Lorraine Motel, Memphis. And then cut to Cecil picking his way through a riot, terrified and heartsick, all his worst fears realized.
And yet, finally Father and Son are reconciled, and Cecil has the courage to not just ask for, but demand a raise, so that black White House servants can receive pay equal to their white counterparts. (It took that much time, the Reagan administration, for that to happen). And Cecil protests apartheid, and is arrested, and we see him in jail, close, finally to his son, who he now knows to be a hero.
And it’s also a film with lots and lots of Presidents. Daniels makes an interesting choice here–most of the actors playing Presidents don’t look much like them, but they’re good enough actors to convince us. And we don’t see, you know, Presidents. We see them as they appear to the butler. So Robin Williams makes a fussy and ineffectual Eisenhower (who was anything but), because when it came time to send federal troops to Little Rock, he did prevaricate and dither. And John Cusack makes a terrifically snake-like Nixon, visiting the butlers’ work space to ask them what they think black people want (and making promises he has no intention of keeping). James Marsden is charismatic and charming and kind as Jack Kennedy, while Minka Kelly (as Jackie), has a deeply affecting breakdown in a short scene after Kennedy’s assassination. Liev Schreiber is suitably crude as LBJ, and Alan Rickman made a fine Reagan. Above all, I loved the snarky choice of Jane Fonda to play a certain iconic First Lady. Hanoi Jane, meet Nancy Reagan–that’s inspired casting.
Here’s what makes this film remarkable to me, though. We celebrate the civil rights movement in this country, and should. And in films like, say The Help, and 42, the movement is treated as unequivocally good, and the white racists who oppose it as sub-human scum. And liberal white people are on the side of the angels, and are, in fact, the people who make good things happen–Emma Stone in The Help, and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey in 42. Fine, fair enough, white people helped, no question.
But this is a film, mostly, about white people who did not help, not nearly as much as they should have, except for that Texas vulgarian LBJ (whose Presidency was destroyed by Vietnam). One scene in particular sticks with me here–John Cusack’s vulpine acquiescence as Haldeman suggests they treat civil rights with ‘benign neglect.’ And Ronald Reagan, staunchly standing up for, uh, ‘principle’–to not join a boycott of apartheid South Africa (Rickman’s particularly fine here).
But even more than that, this is a film that sympathetically portrays a generation of blacks who did not support civil rights, not because they disagreed with its ideals, or had any delusions about white privilege, but because the tactics employed by Dr. King terrified them. And Malcolm X scared them even more. Not every older black person was Fannie Lou Hamer–some middle-class blacks thought the Movement was too far too fast. And this film portrays that dissonance. Forest Whitaker plays a man who nearly cracks from the pressure of maintaining the two faces of the ideal butler. Add the pressure of an activist son, and he’s nearly destroyed, and his wife is nearly destroyed, and his family falls apart. And our sympathies are with his son, not with him. But Whitaker makes us care.
A final credit dedicates the film to the civil rights movement, and the final images of the film demonstrate the astonished joy felt by this elderly man and his wife at the election of our first black President. And finally, the Butler returns home, invited by that President. “I know the way” he says, dismissing a clue-less usher guide. It’s a film that honors a man who does, finally, find his way. But it never dishonors his journey.