Whatever Lee Daniels’ The Butler appears to be from the outside, the actual film is a straightforward yet clever Civil Rights Era delivery device. Utilizing the easily digestible cover of celebrity, Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong examine nearly 80 years of race relations as seen through the eyes of White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). While Presidential faces come and go, played by pedigree talent themselves, this is foremost an excellent 20th century black history tale that, among other things, provides a rich understanding of the importance of Barack Obama’s election to African Americans.
Featuring a racially-charged rape and murder in its opening minutes, Daniels’ film feels heavy-handed at times, but then racism is a heavy subject. Instead of dancing around the topic, being blunt has its benefits and convincingly shows why Cecil behaves the way he does. Committed to a profession of servitude, Cecil is content to put his liberties aside in favor of financial security and personal safety for his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and two sons. Through his early brutal experiences, he’s seen what life could be like for a person of his skin color and has no intention of risking his comfort. That approach doesn’t exactly jive with his activist elder son Louis (Daniel Oyelowo) and it’s via these differing mindsets that the film best explores its meaty subject matter.
As Louis heads off to college in Tennessee and begins to make his mark in the Civil Rights Movement, Lee Daniels’ The Butler offers a neat juxtaposition of experiences by father and son to highlight their vast differences and ironic similarities. The first such usage involves scenes of Cecil serving a well-attended Presidential dinner intercut with the abuse incurred from a Woolworth’s sit-in by Louis and his comrades. Uniting its scattered highs into a full-blown ethical assault, this sequence reveals the film as smarter than a mere Forrest Gump descendant and a work firmly in control of its goals.
Not that the celebrity sightings and historical recreations aren’t exciting. The stargazing proves a fine overarching tool and a welcome respite from heavy moments, even if the success of the Presidential impersonations vary. (Alan Rickman’s Reagan is uncanny and John Cusack’s Nixon is amusing, while Robin Williams’ Eisenhower and James Marsden’s JFK are just kind of there.) Instructed to be apolitical on the job, time and again Cecil conveniently wanders in with a tray and overhears his boss’ important political talks, especially those about race. These moments could easily have come off as trite, notably when Cecil’s feedback is solicited, but his simple, professional responses to the hot-button details prove superbly telling in his support or dissent, especially as he struggles to suppress his evolving political thinking.
As for the trashiness for which Daniels has become known, nobody pees on anyone or throws a television here, though LBJ (Liev Schreiber) does take a dump in front of a small audience. Unexpected yet situation-appropriate comedy likewise pops up in dinner table humor by younger Gaines son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) and his later playful, tension-breaking ribbing of Louis. Ultimately, this is Cecil’s story and the old married rapport between he and Gloria at the film’s close is a fine cherry atop an already pleasant surprise. The memory-flooding exchange is almost enough to persuade one that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a truly great film, and though its rewarding depiction of a difficult topic bring it close to that level, for all its victories “pretty good” is still good enough.
Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.