Real-life story of White House butler struggles to make us connect with historic moments.
Director of Photography:
Running time: 130 minutes
The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines, a black man who served as butler in the White House in the second half of the 20th century, and the landmark events he witnessed with almost unfettered access to the corridors of power.
Opening on a cotton plantation in the 1920s, we see the young Cecil’s mother being dragged to a shed by the white landowner, and as she screams and the many workers around pretend not to hear anything, for fear of retribution, we cringe. The film certainly evokes some powerful moments from the tainted history of the United States, but we also cringe because the roles of the landowner, the young Cecil and his mother all seem so incredibly simplistic and wholly lacking in complexity.
Luckily, Vanessa Redgrave shows up. She stars as the landowner’s mother, and while she is an old white woman with obvious power to wield over her slaves, she leaves the dirty business to her son. Meanwhile, she attends to the needs of the young Cecil, who – his mother having become emotionally unstable after the rape and his father having been shot because he (more or less tacitly) condemned the treatment of his wife – is turned into a servant in the mansion.
Redgrave’s appearance is brief but satisfying, as we plainly see her being slightly conflicted by devotion to the boy’s well-being while also conscious of the as yet unbridgeable divide between them because of the colour of their skin.
The rest of the film, however, is a terrible let-down. Instead of focusing on Gaines’ emotional and intellectual journey from a plantation to the White House, from the South to Washington, D.C, the film flashes through many pivotal moments in the nation’s history without showing how they affect his way of thinking, leaving us to believe he is unaffected by the societal tremors that shake the country, the result of Selma, the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Panthers and the presidents of the United States.
The tension could have been an interesting one: Gaines (played as an adult by Forest Whitaker) is a man who wants to provide for his family, and he has a genuine skill, namely to serve and to serve well, but is he betraying his own people, many of whom are dying in Alabama and Mississippi and across the country as they stand up against intolerance?
Like Helen Mirren’s character, Mrs. Wilson, in Gosford Park, he knows when the president will be hungry, and he knows when the president will be tired, perhaps even before the presidents knows it himself. But he learned a long time ago that he is a black man in a white house, and that he was not hired to contribute or interfere with politics.
His son, who goes to school in the Deep South around the time of the civil rights revolution, has a very different idea, and he is constantly at odds with his father’s apparent passivity in the face of continued injustice. But given how little we actually see of a movement toward racial equality on the side of the presidency, with the possible exception of Kennedy (even Lyndon B. Johnson’s role is downplayed), we cannot understand why Gaines sticks up for his white masters with such foolhardy narrow-mindedness. He may be frustrated with his son’s tactics, but why do we get the feeling he pooh-poohs the strategy, too? Gaines never offers an alternative to his son’s idea to be a Freedom Rider or to sit at a lunch counter where only whites are served.
It cannot be overstated how simple the film is, how predictable every single scene is, or how little we learn about the slow march toward full equality (underlined by the inevitable scenes with Barack Obama’s 2008 election at the end of the film), particularly the painfully slow awakening of Gaines’ own civil rights conscience. Daniels’ attempts to get us closer to the character by having him speak to us throughout are unsuccessful and on the contrary become rather irritating.
The Butler’s screenplay surely presented producers with an easy opportunity to tell a story that was rather uninteresting but whose context of inequality between the races is still valid today despite the Obama epilogue. James Marsden is charming and clearly inquisitive as John F. Kennedy, Jane Fonda is delicious as Nancy Reagan (although a large swath of the United States is bound to be furious with this casting decision), and Gaines’ son Louis is visibly tortured by what he sees as his duty to fight for equality even though his father is serving some of the cream of the political hypocrites.
The insight into Gaines’ character is minimal, as he seems to be isolated from the tides of history breaking on his doorstep for most of the duration of the film. Given that director Lee Daniels is both black and gay, we frankly would have expected him to tell a story about persecution with much more intimacy and understanding instead of merely reciting the vague outlines of history that skim over decades of important events without pausing to take in their meaning and significance.
The Butler is a crude depiction of U.S. history and actually diminishes the many landmark achievements of its civil rights heroes.