In 2008, journalist Wil Haygood wrote a profile for The Washington Post. He thought it would be interesting to speak with an African American who had worked in the White House during segregation. He had heard of a retired butler named Eugene Allen who had served under three presidents. Would Allen be willing to tell his story? Yes, he would, but he pointed out that Haygood was misinformed. He had actually served eight presidents.
As a witness to history, Allen told a compellingly human story, one that blurred the lines between the personal and the political during a tumultuous and defining period. It’s little wonder that Hollywood took notice.
The result is the new movie The Butler (technically, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, because of a copyright dispute). Inspired by Allen’s life, the film paints a disturbing and expansive portrait of the civil rights movement—from the worst of Jim Crow’s “separate but equal” charade and demonstrations both nonviolent and radical, to forced desegregation and the eventual victory of an African American in the White House.
As a child, working on a cotton plantation in the 1920s, young Cecil Gaines witnesses his white “master” (it’s clear that emancipation exists only as an abstract concept here) brutally rape his mother and then casually murder his father. The mistress of the house gives the child a job waiting at table to atone for all this. Cecil learns to serve, and when he eventually runs away, he’s able to improve his skills enough to work at a fine hotel in Washington. A few years later, he impresses a guest from the White House and is offered a job as a butler.
Like Allen, Cecil serves through eight different administrations. From the Eisenhower era through the Reagan years, Cecil is a silent, stoic, always impeccably dressed “fly on the wall” as presidents and their advisers discuss the ramifications of desegregating the country.
Meanwhile, Cecil’s family—his passionate wife, Gloria, and two sons, Louis and Charlie—struggle with everyday life, hopes, dreams, and frustrations. They may be safer than Cecil’s parents were 30 years earlier in the Deep South. But they are far from enjoying equal rights or opportunities. As the boys grow up, they go different directions: Louis becomes a civil rights activist; Charlie leaves for Vietnam. Through the decades, Cecil must come to terms with both his questioned authority at home and his utter invisibility at work.
These are sweeping issues, and The Butler ambitiously tackles them. With a script by Danny Strong (Game Change) and directed by Lee Daniels (Precious), The Butler is an effective, very moving—if rather self-important—film.
The cast is huge and star-studded. Reportedly, many of the actors took pay cuts to appear in the film, because they believed in the importance of the project. The downside of this is that the star-power gets in the way of the story. Robin Williams is Eisenhower, James Marsden is Kennedy, John Cusack is Nixon, Liev Schreiber is Johnson, and Alan Rickman is Reagan. Some succeed better than others, but all encourage the audience to play a game of “Who is that beneath the makeup?” The only exception, in my opinion, is Jane Fonda (ironically enough) as Nancy Reagan. She’s dead on in every way, except perhaps her height. Overall, the White House scenes feel a bit artificial and staged, and the ongoing celebrity sightings don’t help.
The movie is far more powerful when scenes take place in the Gaines’s home. Forest Whitaker is sublimely subtle as the barely seen and never heard butler. But with his family, we see much more depth and pride and bewildered frustration. Whitaker is a magnificent presence on screen throughout.
He is well matched with a truly fantastic performance by Oprah Winfrey, as Gloria. Winfrey is arguably the most famous of the famous faces on the screen, yet utterly able to make us forget who she is. Gloria is a complicated character, a fierce wife and mother, an alcoholic, a party girl, and a woman at times consumed by petty jealousies. I have no doubt that her calendar is full, but The Butler made me wish that Winfrey would find more time for dramatic work. She is the genuine article.
In addition to the distracting parade of presidents, The Butler, in trying to cover everything, offers up far too many coincidences. Cecil happens to be in the room every time a major civil rights decision is being made. Cecil happens to see his own son being arrested on the news. Similarly, there are too many critical historical events fictitiously tied together. Louis Gaines, portrayed with strength and grace by David Oyelowo, is one of the Nashville Woolworth-counter protesters and a Freedom Rider and with Martin Luther King, Jr. at his motel the night before he was shot and with the Black Panthers the day before the FBI fired on Oakland.
At times, The Butler feels like Forrest Gump (maybe Forrest Gump meets The Help), but unlike Gump, it takes itself completely seriously. The civil rights movement does deserve more attention from Hollywood. And one has to applaud the effort here. But, maybe the creative team tried a little too hard.
The Butler is a very good movie. But it could have been great.
In this case, less would have been more.