Loading...

Lee Daniels' The Butler Chronicles the Civil Rights Movement Through the Eyes of a White House Servant 

Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey shine in a cast packed with talented actors

Thursday, Aug 15 2013
Comments
9041963.t.jpg

At the movies, straightforward storytelling, the kind in which a director and his cast push a story forward in waves of action and feeling, has become so out of fashion that it's almost avant-garde. Moviegoers, it seems, need to be cool: not too moved, not too surprised, not too impressed. We wouldn't want to be taken in, would we? We know we've seen it all before — even when we haven't.

We haven't seen a movie like Lee Daniels' The Butler. The world of mainstream film hasn't teemed with multigenerational sagas set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, nor is it rife with movies in which all the white actors — ones with big names — appear only in supporting roles.

The Butler — a sort of mini-history of late-20th-century black America as seen through the eyes of one longtime White House domestic worker, played by Forest Whitaker — is blunt where it needs to be. Sometimes it's too didactic or sentimental. But unlike Daniels' previous films, Precious and The Paperboy, it doesn't pretend to be audacious storytelling. Daniels is that rare contemporary filmmaker who's not afraid of melodrama. The Butler is so old-school it feels modern: Stylistically it could have been made 30 years ago, but its time is now.

Related Stories

The Butler opens, inauspiciously, with stiff voice-over: Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) tells the story of his childhood picking cotton in 1920s Georgia. Cecil learns early on that he's at the mercy of the white folk for whom he and his parents work. The plantation owner's son (a sociopath played by Alex Pettyfer) first rapes Cecil's mother (Mariah Carey) and then murders his father (David Banner). As a grudging act of recompense — you'd hardly call it kindness — the family matriarch (played unflinchingly by Vanessa Redgrave) invites Cecil into the big house to train as a domestic servant, though that's not the phrase she uses.

The invitation changes Cecil's life. He learns good manners and discretion, qualities that serve him well when he eventually becomes a waiter at a swanky hotel (Clarence Williams III is the supervisor who gives him his big break) and later earns a slot as a butler at the White House, where he serves under eight presidents, beginning with Robin Williams' Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Others are played by James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack and Alan Rickman, all impeccably cast; Schreiber's LBJ is particularly robust, barking orders from the toilet seat as his beagles flop around him like tired minions.)

The Butler is adapted from a 2008 Washington Post article by Wil Haygood, detailing the true story of White House butler Eugene Allen.

Cecil is happy enough in his line of work, which allows him to ably support his kids and his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey). But his elder son, Louis (David Oyelowo), chafes under the status quo; he first becomes one of the Freedom Riders and later joins the Black Panthers. You could call that a basic generation-gap screenwriting contrivance, or you could call it a smart way to dramatize the turmoil and necessary change brought about by the civil rights movement. It's both: Cecil may yearn for white people's respect, but his children understandably want to push for more.

In Precious, the characters were walking symbols for the worst horrors of inner-city life. The Butler puts its characters first. Daniels re-creates some of the most potent and horrific images of the civil rights era, including those of young black protesters being blasted by fire hoses. But his approach is, for the most part, more personal than instructional. You can see where everyone's coming from in The Butler, why some characters are afraid to ask for more, while others dare to demand it. When Cecil says, in voice-over, "Any white man can kill any of us at any time and not be punished for it," it's impossible not to think of Florida today.

There's something else going on here, too. There are more terrific black actors in Hollywood than there are good roles they might actually land. The Butler creates an open, freeing space for lots of these performers. Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Yaya Alafia: Everybody's good. Whitaker is one of those observant, understated performers who says everything between the lines. His Cecil has spent a lifetime being deferential to white people, but as one character cannily points out, subservience can be quietly subversive.

Winfrey may be the finest of all. You'd think she might turn Gloria into a snoozy role model. Gloria is flawed (she drinks), but Winfrey knows when to go for laughs, too — she takes the role seriously without making it self-serious. One night, after she and Cecil have been arguing, Gloria rouses herself from bed — she's just a little bit sozzled — and goes over to her vanity, where she applies a coat of lipstick as meticulously as only a truly angry woman can. She taunts her husband: "I bet you wish I spoke French, just like Jack-ay." There's bitterness in that moment, but Winfrey also makes it funny. This is the opposite of great-lady acting — it's something much better, more vibrant and alive, and whatever The Butler's flaws may be, Winfrey's off-the-cuff fortitude is emblematic of its spirit.

Daniels has made a proper movie, with all the conventionality that implies, yet it's progressive in its heart. Sometimes the best way to fight the power is to bend it to your will.

LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER | Directed by Lee Daniels | Written by Danny Strong | The Weinstein Company | Citywide

Reach the writer at szacharek@villagevoice.com

Related Content

Lee Daniels' The Butler
Rated PG-13 · 132 minutes · 2013
Official Site: www.weinsteinco.com/leedanielsthebutler
Director: Lee Daniels
Writer: Lee Daniels, Danny Strong and Wil Haygood
Producer: David Jacobson, Hilary Shor, Adam Merims, Pamela Oas Williams and Laura Ziskin
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden and David Oyelowo

Trailer


Now Playing

Sorry there are no upcoming showtimes for Lee Daniels' The Butler

Now Showing

  1. Wed 16
  2. Thu 17
  3. Fri 18
  4. Sat 19
  5. Sun 20
  6. Mon 21
  7. Tue 22

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!

Slideshows

  • Nicolas Cage's 10 Best Movie Roles
    As video-on-demand continues to become the preferred route of distribution for a certain kind of independent film, much is being made of Nicolas Cage's willingness to slum for a paycheck, with recent examples including already-forgotten, small-screen-friendly items like Seeking Justice, Trespass, Stolen, and The Frozen Ground. (His character names in these projects -- Will Gerard, Kyle Miller, Will Montgomery, and Jack Halcombe -- are as interchangeable as the titles of the films.) Aside from citing the obvious appeal of doing work for money (a defense Cage himself brought up in a recent interview with The Guardian), it's also possible to back Cage by acknowledging the consistency with which he's taken on "serious" roles over the years.

    David Gordon Green's Joe, which hits limited release this weekend (more details on that here), marks the latest instance of this trend, with Cage giving a reportedly subdued performance as an ex-con named Joe Ransom. In that spirit, we've put together a rundown of some of the actor's finest performances, all of which serve as proof that, though his over-the-top inclinations may make for a side-splitting YouTube compilation, Cage has amassed a career that few contemporary actors can equal. This list is hardly airtight in its exclusivity, so a few honorable mentions ought to go out to a pair of Cage's deliriously uneven auteur collaborations (David Lynch's Wild at Heart, Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes), 1983's Valley Girl, 1987's Moonstruck, and Alex Proyas's Knowing (a favorite of the late Roger Ebert).

    --Danny King
  • Ten Enduring Conspiracy Thrillers
    With the approaching release this week of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, many critics, including L.A. Weekly’s own Amy Nicholson, have noted the film’s similarities (starting with the obvious: Robert Redford) to the string of conspiracy thrillers that dominated American cinema during the 1970s. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of ten of the most enduring entries in the genre -- most of them coming from the ‘70s, but with a few early-‘80s holdouts added in for good measure. This is by no means an exclusive list, and more recent films like Roger Donaldson’s No Way Out (1987), Jacques Rivette’s Secret Defense (1998), Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998), Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005), and Redford’s own The Company You Keep (2012) speak to how well the genre has sustained itself over time. Words by Danny King.
  • Behind the Scenes of Muppets Most Wanted
    "The endurance of the Muppets isn't just the result of the creative skills of Henson and collaborators like Frank Oz, or of smart business decisions, or of sheer dumb luck," writes this paper's film critic Stephanie Zacharek in her review of Muppets Most Wanted. "It's simply that the Muppets are just ever so slightly, or maybe even totally, mad. Man, woman, child: Who can resist them? Even TV-watching cats are drawn to their frisky hippety-hopping and flutey, gravely, squeaky, squawky voices." Go behind the scenes with the hippety-hopping Muppets with these images.

    Read our full Muppets Most Wanted movie review.

Now Trending