Lee Daniels’ The Butler
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.“ — Martin Luther King, Jr.
There’s a point midway through The Butler where Martin Luther King, Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) speaking with Freedom Riders at the Lorraine Hotel in Tennessee, affirms domestic help for being trustworthy, hardworking and loyal. They defy racist stereotypes that plague the black community. Cecil Gaines is just such a person. The Butler recounts the story of a White House butler who witnesses the civil rights struggle as he serves eight administrations from Truman (not portrayed) through Reagan during three decades of history. A reserved presence, he observes passively but quietly encourages a revolution. The very suggestion that one could affect change simply by living unnoticed, not making waves, is perhaps the film’s most subversive suggestion. It’s certainly well executed by Forest Whitaker. While the drama can be simplistic, there’s a dignity to his character. He exudes a subtlety lacking in the rest of the picture. It’s his portrayal that raises this material into something rather unexpected and at times extraordinary.
Whitaker is flanked by an astounding company of thespians. The Butler has one of those casts that is a blessing for anyone playing the parlor game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” It makes connecting the actor to everyone in Hollywood through this movie that much easier. No, Bacon is not in it, but just about everyone else is: Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, Terrence Howard, Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda. The cast list is a virtual who’s who of people in the business.
Danny Strong’s screenplay is inspired by Wil Haygood’s article A Butler Well Served by This Election which appeared in the Washington Post a few days after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. This is screenwriter Danny Strong’s fabricated story based on real life White House butler Eugene Allen. The drama “is set against historical events,” but “the title character and his family are fictionalized.” That might give pause to viewers watching a picture that manipulates real people across an epic that spans over 30 years. It clearly has lofty ambitions. The Butler is sort of a smorgasbord that samples various episodes that highlight the civil rights movement as seen through the eyes of this one man. I should note that the best moments actually concern Cecil Gaines’ home life with his family. Oprah Winfrey is surprisingly believable as his unassuming wife. It’s fascinating that a particularly interesting role, Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo), is entirely made up. Yet the interactions between the reserved butler father and his angry young activist son are impressive. An argument over Sidney Poitier’s acting abilities perfectly highlights the generation gap.
The Butler always remains entertaining. It’s never boring. However the script’s point of view seems to deviate in the final act. It is the biggest irony that Nancy Reagan’s unprecedented invitation to Cecil to the state dinner—the first black butler to receive such an honor—begins a series of circumstances that ultimately prompts the butler to hand in his resignation. What initially seems like a triumph is painted as setback. Despite the mixed messages, and casual breeze through history, The Butler is a stirring film. Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo give able support but this is Forest Whitaker’s show. He is absolutely mesmerizing in the title role. Cecil slowly influences change with a honorable sense of purpose. It quietly maintains that sometimes, good things come to those who wait.