A few days ago I went to my local theater to see what all the buzz was about regarding The Butler. Movies that release in August aren’t supposed to get Oscar whispers. Dramas released in August aren’t supposed to be noticed at all unless they’re some sort of indie counter-programming that, while decent, can’t stand up to the big dogs come Fall. But The Butler is the big dogs.
Well, it looks like moviegoers were checking it out for a reason. There really is an amazing, mesmerizing, heartfelt and at times even brutal story to be found here. Director Lee Daniels does a great job of jumping back from The Paperboy after his previous successes of Precious and Monster’s Ball. Unfortunately the best part of The Butler isn’t in its primary story, but in a subplot.
Our primary plot follows Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) from childhood to old age as he struggles to better himself and later his family in a very real, very racist America. We start off in 1920’s Georgia where a young Cecil witnesses brutality on the cotton farm his family works in. Even though the slaves were theoretically freed decades before, not much has changed in the South since the Civil War.
After a very unfortunate series of events, he is taken in by the lady of the house and taught to be a ‘House Negro.’ Eventually, he strikes out on his own in an attempt to find a better life, but initially all he finds is more racism. Through a stroke of luck, he is taken in by the very person he attempts to steal food from and further improves his skills of being a manservant. Eventually, he is given a promotion that takes him to Washington, D.C., working for a swanky hotel.
His skills at saying just what guests want to hear along with his flawless presentation and appearance eventually get him noticed by the man in charge of hiring at the White House. Thus begins Cecil’s life as one of the President’s personal butlers, starting with the Eisenhower administration and not ending until Regan is in office.
So what’s all this I mentioned about an amazing ancillary story? Well you see, Cecil and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) have two sons, Lewis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley). Lewis is a very bright, very passionate young man who wants to do his part for the Civil Rights movement. Even though his father is dead-set against it, Lewis turns his back on his family and participates in peaceful demonstrations throughout the South.
Of course, this being the late 50’s and early 60’s, a quick Google search can show you just what happened to Lewis. He was threatened, beaten, jailed and worse, but he persisted with his calling. At one point he is seen working alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and in a very harrowing scene, he is riding the ‘Freedom Bus’ when it comes under attack by angry townsfolk and the KKK.
While all this is going on, we continually drop back into Cecil’s life as he works alongside fellow butlers Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz) as they serve successive Presidents, always doing their best despite unequal pay or treatment compared to the white staff.
While the main story of raising your children in a time when just the color of your skin could get you lynched in a large swathe of the country is at times heartfelt and genuinely gut-wrenching, it often falters due to too many party scenes and meaningless chatter. Additionally, too much time is spent with small, worthless side-plots. While the one involving Lewis’s enlistment into the military is important, too many others do nothing but pad out the 132 minute run-time.
Yes, Oprah is very, very good in her role. No, I do not need to see a third and fourth party scene between her and her neighbors. No, I do not really care about the sub-sub-plot involving Howard (Terrance Howard).
Yes, I do want to see Lewis’s involvement with the Black Panthers. That’s some heavy shit. No, wait, what? I have to sit through another petty argument between Cecil and Gloria instead? Bummer.
My other problem is with the Presidents themselves. They’re all incredibly hit-and-miss, but mostly miss. Eisenhower is played by Robin Williams, and while I know he can do drama, he’s just a bit off here. Kennedy is played by James Marsden and he does the accent pretty well but doesn’t quite pull off the Kennedy charm. Liev Schrieber does his best Lyndon B. Johnson impersonation, but they concentrate so much on how he supposedly was when the cameras were off that you kinda really hate the guy.
The two weirdest are Alan Rickman as Reagan and John Cusack as Nixon. For whatever reason, Rickman looks as uncomfortable as I felt. Cusack, however, nailed it. He’s just as awkward, selfish, slimy and odd as all the stories of pre-President Nixon and Watergate-era Nixon lead me to believe.
Is The Butler a good movie? Absolutely. It really is, and its in-depth look at how African Americans were treated over several decades of America’s recent history is mesmerizing. It’s just that the main plot is often too schmaltzy, overpowering its smaller, better, more important story.
The Butler: B