Saturday, August 17, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a straightforward, deliberately paced historical drama, and that description isn’t meant entirely as a criticism. Drawn from the life of Eugene Allen (here called Cecil Gaines), who worked as a White House butler under Presidents from Truman to Reagan, The Butler contains under its conventional surface a running argument about the relationships of African-Americans to the institutions of the country they live in. It is that argument, which is largely left unresolved, that gives the movie an welcome bite. Cecil (played as an adult by Forest Whitaker in a performance of enormous subtlety) sees his father murdered in a Georgia cotton field and is taken to serve in the house by a mistress (Vanessa Redgrave) who never lets Cecil forget his place. As a young man Cecil is saved from a life of trouble by a older butler (Clarence Williams III), who sends Cecil to Washington and eventually to a job at The White House. Daniels and writer Danny Strong (adapting an article by Will Haygood) pay the utmost respect to Cecil’s professionalism; the movie is serious about how well he and his fellow butlers (Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz) do their jobs, and I was relieved that there was never a moment when someone opened a door just as Cecil walked by with a tray. Such a comedic choice would have cut against one of the central messages of The Butler, which is that there is always work to do.

The bulk of The Butler jumps between Cecil at work and at home with his wife Gloria (a funny, surprising Oprah Winfrey) and scenes of the political awakening of Cecil’s older son Louis (David Oyelowo). The actors who play Presidents are mostly treated as Very Special Guest Stars; Robin Williams plays Eisenhower as befuddled that Orval Faubus won’t work with him on integration but James Marsden as Kennedy gets some moments of genuine anger while watching a civil rights protest on TV. I wish the movie had found a way to skip over Nixon, our most caricatured President, but John Cusack plays the role and (in a scene near the end of Nixon’s term) looks and feels wildly out of place. Alan Rickman makes a slightly doddering Reagan, but I wanted a bit more of a Jane Fonda who plays Nancy Reagan as the power behind the throne. The marriage of Cecil and Gloria ebbs and flows over the years in a way that never feels false. Whitaker and Winfrey are excellent together, and Daniels allows as much time for Gloria’s loneliness as he does for scenes of laughter and cross-talk between Cecil, Gloria, and their friends. (It’s good to see Terrence Howard as a neighbor who wants to be more than friends with Gloria.) It’s only at home that Cecil can let certain sides of his personality out; he has trained himself since childhood to tamp down his personality in front of others and it is a tribute to Whitaker’s performance that he’s able to unlock the emotions of such a recessive character for us.

The relationship between Cecil and Louis is both the best and most challenging part of The Butler. Cecil believes that hard work and keeping his head down is the best thing both for him and his family, and it’s only gradually that he becomes angered enough about pay inequity at the White House to speak out. From the first moment we see Louis we can tell he’s embarrassed by what his father does, but Oyelowo also gets across that Louis is embarrassed by his embarrassment. Louis grows up at Fisk University while Cecil serves the President, and the juxtaposition achieves an irony perhaps even greater than Daniels intended. There are scenes in The Butler I don’t think I’ve ever seen staged before, including a lunch counter sit in and a training seminar where Louis and his fellow students are encouraged to hurl epithets at each other in preparation for the real thing. Some stock footage is used, but the choice to film a scene in which Oyelowo is menaced by a police dog feels right for a story of ordinary people who drove history’s changes. When scenes like these are intercut with the rituals of White House service, it isn’t clear how we’re supposed to feel about Cecil and that’s a good thing. The ruthless interiority of Whitaker’s performance makes up for a 1960’s scene where young Caroline Kennedy asks Cecil why people ride on the “Freedom Bus”. The choice to have Cecil reading Madeleine to Caroline before she asks the question is exactly right. Finally Cecil and Louis do have their reckoning, and while it’s an emotional moment there’s also a sense of Cecil’s political journey just beginning. The Butler is the story of a man who always did his best; Daniels doesn’t try to make too much of his hero or to make him just an accidental witness to history. Late in the movie Cecil comments in voice-over about the “two faces” that White House butlers wear, and it’s honesty about those two faces that makes The Butler a success and a credit to all involved.

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