Before seeing Lee Daniels’ The Butler, I had several reasons to dislike it. First, I don’t like anyone’s name before the title. I would not like Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas or Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, thus I would not like anyone’s anything. Second, any film with Oprah Winfrey usually belongs on basic cable. Speaking of Oprah, the third reason is her sour grapes when the film was ignored in the Oscar nominations. I’ll take fermented grapes but not sour. Honestly, the only reason I watched The Butler was that I had the choice between that and a second helping of Silver Linings Playbook. I chose wisely, and Oprah was right.
Having already mentioned Gump, I may as well get the obvious out of the way. If someone tells you that The Butler, spanning from 1926 to 2008, is the African-American and more serious version of Gump, they’re not completely wrong. They’re both stories of people struggling through disadvantages, though very different, and persevere through great trials while they witness history itself as it struggles and perseveres. However, while Gump was more light hearted, The Butler rips up the comfy carpet beneath which the dust has been swept.
In a 1926 cotton field, young Cecil Gaines (Michael Rainey Jr.) loses more than just his innocence as he watches his mother taken sexually and his father taken fatally by the son of a white slave owner. The grandmother of the murderer/rapist, with what little sympathy she has, takes Cecil out of the fields and into the house where she preps him to become one of the domestic servants, also known throughout the film as a “house n_gger.” A dozen or so years later, well trained and in his teens, Cecil runs away because he expects the rebelliousness he contains will eventually lead to his own death.
He (now played by Aml Ameen) is tired, hungry, and desperate after being on the run for several weeks and breaks into a bakery. Maynard (Clarence Williams III), the bakery’s caretaker, is a sympathetic soul who finds Cecil and is strangely willing to clean him up and get him a job at an upscale hotel where he is a waiter, bartender, and all-around servant. Another dozen years later, Cecil (Forrest Whitaker) is noticed by a member of President Eisenhower’s cabinet who visits the hotel and recommends him for an opening in the White House staff.
From the Eisenhower Administration of the 50’s to the Reagan Administration of the 80’s, we watch as Cecil, his family, and his employer – the Presidents of the United States – live through Brown v. the Board of Education, the Woolworth Sit In, Dr. Martin Luther King’s march on Birmingham, his assassination, the Black Panthers, and a few other chapters of the Civil Rights Movement. We see Cecil as he sees the struggles of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan. I won’t name the actors who play those Presidents because there is a little bit of fun to notice it yourself. As each President deals with racial struggles from one side of the desk, Cecil and his family deal with the same events but in very different ways from his bosses.
Gloria Gaines (Winfrey) has her own struggle with alcohol. Their older son Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo) progresses from a wide-eyed college student who joins the Freedom Riders while their younger son Charles (Elijah Kelley) joins the war in Vietnam. Cecil’s co-workers in the White House include Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz), who are more than just names in the cast. Gooding (Don Jon, Jerry Maguire) and Kravitz (The Hunger Games) are involved in key points when Cecil and Louis have a harsh falling out.
But let’s get back to Whitaker and Winfrey and positives and negatives. Whitaker (Out of the Furnace, The Last King of Scotland) narrates the film, just as Hanks does in Forrest Gump. The good part is he provides, like Gump, excellent insight to fill in the blanks as they jump through history. The bad part is it is his character narrates from his age at the end of the film, somewhere near 80-years old. His narration is often mumbled and unclear, leaving possibly important facts missing in action. Still, his steadfast stance as a father and humble manners as a butler are the load-bearing beam make him the straight man who allows everyone else to stretch out and get comfortable.
I assumed 100% that Winfrey (The Color Purple, Beloved) would look flat as any D-list actor, and I was wrong. She brings an excellent series of up’s and down’s next to Whitaker’s straight and narrow. Her troubles with alcohol, living room dances, and temptational lusting for a neighbor are completely believable. I expected to watch and say, “Hey, there’s Oprah pretending to act.” Not a chance, and I owe her an apology, as if she might care.
Let’s also get back to director Lee Daniels, Oscar nominated for Precious. The biggest complaint I might have is putting Mariah Carey in the film. Yeah, that’s about it. As the film neared the end, I worried how he was going to wrap it up. I expected that perhaps Cecil was going to die, but you can’t have a dead narrator unless you’re making The Lovely Bones. Something had to tip the balance, and what he chose was bitter-sweet. The bitter was what Cecil had to endure. The sweet was that it worked just fine.
A tip of the hat also to film editors Joe Klotz and Brian Kates, along with writer Danny Strong, who align Cecil and Louis with interspersed cuts as they simultaneously experience important, but very different life events. In one particular scene, Louis is sitting through an aggressive Black Panther strategy session while Cecil is listening to Nixon’s strategy session on how to “gut” the Panthers. Sure, it’s a technique that’s been done before, but everything has been done before. Not everything done before has been done well.
Sound editing – not so good. Gooding Jr’s character is rather lecherous, not shy about vulgar comments. In his first scene, we hear him telling a sexually-detailed joke. However, lockers are slamming in the background, and one slams exactly as the punchline is delivered and the joke is lost.
This may sound childish, but one of several telltale signs if I enjoy a movie is if after the movie I spend any amount of time pretending (really, I do this) to be one of the characters from the film.
Beware the negative reviews that criticize The Butler because it is not actually a true story. So what? It doesn’t claim to be a true story, only “inspired” by a true story. I wrote a short story about a woman who believed she was dying and committed several crimes as revenge on people who did not treat her well. That was also “inspired” by a true story, but it is not at all close to a true story.
What is true about The Butler is it well worth your time. I hope you make the effort to see it, and I hope that you also side with Oprah that it deserved more than zero Oscar nominations. They could have at least thrown it a bone with Best Adapted Screenplay on it. It is not a brilliant film, but it moved me enough to recommend that you move yourself to give it a chance.
Teacher gives it an A-.