The Butler

November 2, 2013
thebutler

When a film touches on shameful events that are still raw and painful it exerts a strange moral blackmail on the viewer. In terms of script and character development, The Butler is a horribly corny movie. As a nose-to-the-glass chronicle of the civil rights movement, Lee Daniels’s melodrama strikes at the heart of America’s good opinion of itself.

Based on the real life story of Eugene Allen, The Butler brings us the biography of one Cecil Gaines (pronounced “see-sill”, for some unknown reason). Born on a cotton plantation in Macon Georgia, Cecil has an early taste of Southern justice, finding that the white man may commit any crime with impunity while the black man suffers in silence.

Trained as a “house nigger”, Cecil finds he can make his way in the world as a professional servant. In Washington D.C. his discretion and good manners earn him a call to the White House, where he will work as a butler for a succession of American Presidents, starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Cecil is advised at the start of his career that a black man must have two faces, one for himself, and one for dealing with his white patrons. While he has become an expert in the latter role, Cecil’s home life does not always run so smoothly. His wife, Gloria, resents the long hours he spends at work while his eldest son, Louis, takes up the cause of civil rights.

As Louis joins in with the non-violent protest movement, the Freedom Riders, and eventually the Black Panthers, he becomes increasingly estranged from his apolitical father. The film tracks over a period of roughly fifty years, showing the growth of the civil rights movement from two perspectives. Louis is involved at a grass-roots level, while his father listens in on successive Presidents grappling with the problems of America’s ingrained racism.

The only novel feature of this classic father-son conflict is the centrality of the political argument. Cecil’s son feels a predictable contempt for the subservient profession of butler, but there is never any doubt he will eventually come to respect his father’s choices.

As a heart-warming tale of Afro-America’s long march to political equality, The Butler is every bit as sentimental as The Color Purple (1985). The chief difference lies in a couple of electrifying scenes: the café sit-ins in Tennessee, and the ambush of the Freedom Riders bus in Birmingham, Alabama. In these brief interludes history carves a path through the schlock, revealing the ferocity of the white reaction to the most peaceful assertions of civil rights. It’s ugly, it’s brutal, and it allows this  meandering tale to rear up and give us a nasty bite.

If these scenes provide only a brief distraction, it is because the viewer’s main activity in The Butler is to play ‘Spot the Celebrity’. There may never have been a movie in which so many so-called stars play such ridiculous roles. It begins with an almost wordless Mariah Carey as Cecil’s mother. Soon we will meet Vanessa Redgrave as the woman who gives Cecil his servant’s job. There follows a procession of unlikely actors playing various Presidents: Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as LBJ, John Cusack as Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Reagan. Not to mention Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan.

The fact that none of these actors look remotely like the person they are playing only adds to the pantomime atmosphere. The few figures who are called upon to do much real acting are Forest Whitaker as Cecil, Oprah Winfrey as Gloria, and David Oyelowo as Louis. They are skilful enough to make one occasionally forget the ham-fisted lines they have to deliver.

Whitaker seems to do his best work with blink of an eye, or a small piece of body language. Winfrey, as the TV viewers of America know, has great screen presence. She is here as an actor, not a celebrity, even if one constantly expects her to turn around and start addressing the studio audience.

This film has generated a lot of Oscar-related chat, mainly in respect to Whitaker’s performance. It’s harder to praise Lee Daniels for a film that can’t decide whether it is a tragedy or a comedy. No matter how much newsreel footage we absorb, the real drama of the civil rights movement is being perpetually undermined by the caricatural parade of goofy Presidents.

As a director, Daniels has a reckless streak. It worked in his favour in his feature of last year, The Paperboy, which benefited from a script by novelist, Pete Dexter. Saddled with Danny Strong’s clumsy screenplay for The Butler he often seems to be straining for effect. Daniels has said this film is the most important thing he has ever done because it encourages people to remember the achievements of the civil rights movement. He has succeeded in this noble, if didactic, aim, but it is a peculiar tactic to embed this motif in a jumbo-sized star vehicle that constantly threatens to go plunging into a ditch.

The Butler
USA, rated M
132 mins,
Directed by Lee Daniels; written by Danny Strong; starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr.

Published in the Australian Financial Review, November 2, 2013

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