In 2009, Lee Daniel’s Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire made a provocative splash into audiences’ consciousness. Critics and moviegoers were floored by the film’s daunting tale of a 16-year-old inner city youth’s struggle with abuse and incest. Although Precious shocked and disheartened some, it left a staggeringly bad taste in my mouth as I initially viewed it as a poorly directed melodrama with little to no redeeming qualities besides Mo’Nique’s superb acting abilities and being reintroduced to Lenny Kravitz’s face. Precious laid out a tale of misery with no light or redemption by the end. Because of this, in spite of my affinity for period pieces, I was apprehensive of seeing Lee Daniels’ The Butler in fear that its story would be a typical melodramatic puff piece with all the familiar tropes and little heart. Luckily, The Butler not only impresses due to its heartwarming story, but also its notable direction and editing.
Loosely based on the true story of Eugene Allen, The Butler follows the life of Cecil Gains (Forest Whitaker) beginning with his childhood growing up on a cotton farm in Macon, GA (shouts out to my hometown!) A victim of despicable, low-life landowners, Cecil witnesses the death of his father at an early age, which results in the young boy getting a house servant position by one of his sympathetic employers. As a servant, Cecil is taught the tricks and trade of being a successful servant and pleasing his clients. As the years go by, Cecil works his way up the ranks in servicing, landing a chance opportunity to become the head butler in the White House where he makes his living through eight presidencies. Simultaneous to each president and major historical event, America is in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement where Cecil’s politically charged oldest son Louis finds himself involved. Cecil’s career and his son’s struggles take viewers on a whirlwind ride through the changes within America from the 1950s to the present day.
The Butler’s strength comes from its phenomenal cast and the strong performances they present. Forest Whitaker is truly endearing as Cecil. He explores the highs of self importance through working in the White House as well as the lows of unrelenting anger at his son’s choice of path. Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s wife, Gloria, is perhaps the film’s greatest asset. Winfrey plays to the strengths of Gloria, capturing her loving, supporting side as a wife and mother in the household and also beautifully portrays Gloria’s pitfalls that are exposed while Cecil is away working long hours in the White House. Supporting characters give their all in powerful, impressive performances; namely Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, Terrance Howard as Cecil’s friend and neighbor, Howard, and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Carter Wilson, a fellow butler on staff with a foul mouth and hilarious disposition.
“So she told me to stick my hand in it. Needless to say it was a mess…”
The all around great performances are well-rounded with Daniel’s impressive direction that encompasses phenomenal editing techniques from Joe Klotz which detail the contrasting ideologies between Cecil and Louis. During one montage, Louis and his friends participate in a group sit-it at a segregated restaurant. While they sit they endure a barrage of insults and physical attacks. The scene then transports viewers to the White House where with pride Cecil and the serving staff prepare a meal for guests being sure to meticulously place each dish where they belong. The scene further intertwines past moments of the activists being ridiculed by their peers as a means of trained preparation for the sit in. Despite the sadness of the scene, it perfectly explicates the contrasting world view and experiences that ultimately end up distancing Louis and Cecil.
The Butler is a tear-jerker in the purest sense of the word. The whole film is meant to entice a physical reaction from viewers whether that reaction is one of anger or sorrow at the struggles African American’s endured during the Civil Rights Movement, or elation at what they overcame to find their place in the sun. Regardless, it’s almost impossible to not cry during certain key moments of the film. The problem is, however, that The Butler at times obviously and overtly takes liberties with the story, beating us over the head with melodrama to keep us engaged. Because of this, there are more than a handful of eye rolling moments that only happen for the sake of advancing the plot along as well as invoking viewers’ sympathies.
It takes a lot to laugh and cry. The Butler wants you to do both!
While The Butler has more than enough moments that provoke sadness or anger, much of the film is actually very funny and screenwriter Danny Strong does a great job at incorporating humor into a majority of the film. However, the unintentionally funniest parts of the film are the ones in which presidents are portrayed. John Cusack as Richard Nixon is laughable almost as much as Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) is as Ronald Reagan. The use of big name actors and familiar faces playing key historical figures ruins their effectiveness. Instead of focusing on Martin Luther King’s role with Louis’ life, I instead was too distracted that True Blood’s Lafayette was pretending to be MLK.
“I am not a crook… just sad that she gave me a pen.”
With preconceived notions, it’s easy to write off The Butler as “one of those” movies: the type that uses race as a vehicle to entice a reaction and get Oprah fans with white guilt into seats. However, Daniels surprises by delivering a much more thought provoking, heart-wrenching story of a group of people’s entangled struggles with self-identity in a time of oppression. The Butler gets its inspiration from what Forest Gump so eloquently does; tell a passionate story using historical events as a backdrop for characters to learn and grow. The Butler reminds us of the harrowing and empowering nature of those involved in the events of the Civil Rights Movements, allowing viewers to appreciate and respect those who fought the fight before and for us all.
Take a Drink: for every actor whose likeness of a president fails because their face is too recognizable.
Take a Drink: for every major event Louis somehow finds himself a part of.
Do a Shot: for every death that happens.
Take a Drink: for every presidency we don’t see.
Take a Drink: for every major scandal or event that goes unmentioned (Bobby Kennedy’s death?)