A Look at Lee Daniels ‘The Butler’

“We have no tolerance for politics at the White House.”

Sounds like a great place to work.

The Butler

Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” is one of the more interesting films about the Civil Rights Movement in that a lot of time and focus is spent with the Black characters rather than their White saviors, as was the case with a movie like “Mississippi Burning,” where a lot of time and focus went to Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman while the plight of Blacks in Mississippi felt shoved into the film.

Inspired by the life of Eugene Allen, who worked at the White House for 34 years, “The Butler” follows the life of Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker, who goes from working on a Georgia plantation to serving Whites until he finds himself at the White House as a butler.  He witnesses conversations on key events that will affect not just him, but his family and the people around him, which creates tension at home when his son, Louis, played by David Oyelowo, goes South to attend Fisk University and becomes involved in some of the those same events of the Civil Rights Movement.  Things also come to a head when his wife, Gloria, played by Oprah Winfrey, at times grows restless with his long hours at the White House while she remains at home.

Around the time that the trailer for “The Butler” debuted, there were many, including myself, who saw the film as nothing more than Oscar-baiting, given Lee Daniels’ previous work on “Precious,” the ensemble cast of well known actors with some taking on the roles of previous United States presidents, that the film deals with the Civil Rights Movement and that the film would be released around the same time as the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.  The film’s writer, Danny Strong, also had a hand in writing films dealing with past events- albeit, more recent- with “Recount” and “Game Change.”

Also, given the fact that this would be told from the point of view from Black characters affected by the Movement gave the movie, at first sight, this added layer of emotional resonance that just screamed “Oscar.”  Therein lies a potential issue with the film without trying to put words into anyone’s mouth: viewers expected a lot from the film or for it to be very heavy-handed based on the trailer with its dramatic music and lineup of A-list actors.  Those expectations can hamper the viewing experience.  And while the film is clearly targeted toward those who were involved, affected or played a part in the Civil Rights Movement, for the most part, the movie does a good job explaining most events for newcomers unfamiliar with the Movement.

For me, “The Butler” is a well made period piece that puts focus on the family, while also showcasing some tense moments when Gaines’ son gets involved with events like the lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides.  It’s an interesting examination of generational clashes, the masks we wear in order to make a good impression, what changes us and who refuses to change.

From the onset and through most of the film, “The Butler” does a good job at pacing its storyline and letting the audience see and feel what happens on screen rather than have it spelled out.  I repeat, most of the time.  A movie covering this much ground in such a short amount of time would require patience in its storytelling and for a lot of the film, Daniels succeeds.  From his days as a boy on a plantation in Macon, Georgia, Cecil is told by his father that, no matter how much he doesn’t like it, he lives in the White man’s world and take what’s thrown at him, even if that involves the rape of his mother, played by a silent Mariah Carey, and the subsequent shooting of his father, whose only protest to his wife’s rape is a feeble “Hey.”

From the point when Vanessa Redgrave’s character trains Cecil to be a ‘house nigger’ and throughout the film, Cecil is told about the importance of anticipation: see what Whites want and know how to meet them halfway.  Having two faces, the one a butler shows to other Blacks versus the one he shows to Whites, is what keeps the butler employed.  And, of course, it’s what leads Cecil all the way to the White House when he overhears and is asked to give his opinion on school integration during 1957.

“The Butler” could also be summed as a ‘Who’s who’ and ‘What’s what’ of the Civil Rights Movement, though given the context of most situations, it does not feel forced that certain events or people are referenced for the sake of fitting them into the film.  Whether it’s Brown v. Board or Emmett Till’s death, the film takes time to establish the racial climate while telling the story.

The Butler- Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower

Robin Williams as President Eisenhower struck me as odd and it still does because he doesn’t really bury himself in the role.  His scenes with Cecil seem to serve more as character interaction and exposition for the role Eisenhower will play in aiding civil rights- a trend that would follow with future Presidents as the film progresses.  These scenes with the Presidents are played against scenes with Cecil at home with his family and friends, and this is where the difference in opinions, and contrasting performances, play well.

While Cecil’s wife and friends are elated with Cecil’s job, his son is more outspoken and reads up on the growing movement.  He’s not as enthused about the butler position, nor is he looking forward to staying in the city, which leads him to Fisk University and kicks off his role in the civil rights struggle.  As Louis is new to what risks he will take, the film follows him through training and takes time explaining what he and other young Blacks and Whites will endure when they begin their protests, beginning with the lunch counter sit-in at Woolworth’s.

The Butler- Louis arrested after Lunch Counter Sit-In at Woolworth's

I’ll come out and say that I don’t normally get uncomfortable at tense moments in films, but the lunch counter sit-in scene is one where I did have to sit back and take a deep breath when it ended.  It’s one thing to read about something that happened and you know what’s coming, but then it does and you realize that while it’s a recreation, this did happen and then some.  Played alongside this scene is the moment where the students receive their training- they’re taught to expect violence, taunted and, above all, death.  Soon enough, the students sit at a Whites Only section of a counter, refuse to leave and do their homework.  Of course, it’s only a matter of time before a mob storms in, calling the kids names, spitting and throwing condiments, and beating the hell out of them in an attempt to get them to move.  It captures the time well.  For me, it was a difficult scene to watch.

When confronted, Cecil focuses on how Louis broke the law and was arrested rather than on his desire to make a statement.  Their inability to agree highlights the divide between the old guard versus proactive students of the 1950s and 60s.  Parents shielding their children from the dangers of challenging sanctioned segregation is not a new concept with these types of films, though it carries a bit more resonance here, given Cecil’s position.  Here he is, working for the President who is responsible for making decisions that affect not just him, but his son and everyone around him.  Whereas his son refuses to remain silent and puts himself in harm’s way to make his point.

The Butler- James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, meeting the Butlers

The Eisenhower administration is all setup for John F. Kennedy, played by James Marsden.  Marsden brings some of Kennedy’s signature humor, as well as his reluctance to move forward all at once on civil rights for fear of losing voters.  In another good use of juxtaposition and character development, Cecil reads to Caroline Kennedy at the same time we see Louis on a bus headed to Birmingham.  At night.  I immediately thought of the scene in Mississippi Burning where Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner are driving into the Mississippi night, only for the viewer to see moments later that they are being pursued.  Wouldn’t you know it?  Off in the distance, a Freedom Rider spots a car driving toward them and Louis realizes the lit cross atop the car can mean one thing.

The Butler- Klan cross headlights

I mean, if I saw that coming my way in the middle of the night, I’d probably freak out.

National attitudes begin to change during the Kennedy administration, and it shows through his national address on civil rights.  Through the fire in his eyes, one could think that Kennedy could be the President to fully embrace equality for all people.  Then you remember how this all played out.

The Butler- Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson

Suddenly Liev Schreiber enters as Lyndon Johnson and the film’s pacing starts to waver.  While the performances hold up well, the film has a few moments where people are conveniently in the right place through convoluted circumstances.  Given the liberties this film has taken with accuracy, it felt odd to suddenly see Louis pop up in places with little to no explanation of why he’s there.  His radical transformation into a Black Panther plays alongside Cecil becoming more outspoken about Black butlers being paid less than Whites despite working longer.  Their attitudes slowly begin to sync, but then fall apart when they’re put in the same room and Louis’ talk of self-defense and new lifestyle doesn’t gel with his parents.

By the time the film gets to John Cusack as President Richard Nixon, sanctioned segregation is a relic, yet there are still matters such as jobs, unemployment, scandals and the Black Panther Party.  Though at this point, more focus is spent with Cecil and his family, as both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are relegated to archival footage.  Around this time, the film must have realized it only had a little bit of time and few presidents left to cover, so it enters montage mode as  it flashes forward to the 1980s.  This leaves us with the odd choice of Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, and it’s as strange as it sounds.  Nothing is memorable outside of the hair they gave Rickman for the role.  Yes, it’s nice to see him interact with Cecil and make a case for equal pay between Blacks and Whites, but that’s about it.  At least Jane Fonda makes for a convincing Nancy Reagan…

To go forward would venture into spoiler and ending territory, so let’s leave it there and get to the film’s structure.  Considering how much time has to be covered in the span of movie, I appreciate the film taking time with its pacing.  For the most part, we’re given plenty of information about events, whether as a refresher for the familiar or an introduction for the unfamiliar, before they occur so we’re not in the dark.  I repeat, for the most part.  While “The Butler” knows how to pace itself, there are times where the audience is expected to know how certain real life events played out.  I’d say around the time we get halfway through Kennedy’s term that the film becomes loose with its storytelling.

For example, we’re given enough background information on school integration and events like the lunch counter sit-ins before they occur, but when Kennedy is assassinated, it’s presumed that the audience is familiar with Walter Cronkite’s announcement of his death.  It’s also implied that Kennedy’s assassination was in direct relation to his address on civil rights.

Nixon asks Cecil if he’s going to pull through, but those unfamiliar with Watergate won’t know exactly what Nixon is talking about.  It’s as if the film is fine with holding the audience’s hand sometimes, then leaving them to figure it out at other moments.  Better if the film had decided to do one rather than try and do both.

The direction can also be quite heavy handed and leads to very predictable moments.  Kennedy’s anger about violence toward civil rights protesters followed up by his impassioned speech complete with dramatic music in the background shows that he’s hit his high point.  Same goes with Cecil’s other son, but more on him later.  He can only go down from there, and he does.  Now part of this has to do with being a film based on real events, but there are few surprises for a movie that plays up the tense moments with unnecessarily dramatic music.  Again, I refer to the scene in Mississippi Burning where the civil rights workers are pursued by Klansmen.  No over the top score- just a simple drum that plays at a low beat.  The scene is allowed to play out by the characters’ fear shown on screen and the persistence of their attackers as opposed to a big score.

And then there are the conveniences.  Now I won’t harp on the film for having Cecil be the butler who’s around Presidents when key civil rights conversations happen since that’s the film’s goal, but I will chalk it up to too much convenience when it comes to Louis’ involvement.  I’ll buy his role during the sit-ins and Freedom Rides since we saw the establishing scenes that set up those moments.  What I don’t buy is how he just happens to be at so many key events without explanation.  I’ve come to the conclusion that Louis is one of three things:

  1. A very lucky person to be involved in so many historic events.
  2. A very unlucky person to be involved in so many historic events.
  3. A very fortunate person to not be involved in every historic event.

Option C sounds good.  Otherwise, the missing boys in Mississippi would have been Goodman, Cheney, Schwerner and Gaines.  It’s too coincidental that he happens to be in Birmingham during the riots, in the hotel room with Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, that he’s leaving a building one night, talking about how he doesn’t know about this Malcolm X guy.  It’s too easy to just strategically place him in one huge event after another when it’s unnecessary.  I understand that what happens to him runs parallel to his father’s job serving different Presidents, but I found it to be lazy storytelling.  Particularly when the scene with King is only there to discuss the importance of Black domestics in the role of Black history, Louis did not need to be everywhere.  His character seems to be based off of Congressman John Lewis, to the point that he’s wearing a bandage on his head at one point, not unlike Lewis, but then John Lewis is actually mentioned IN the film.  What, did he decide to eat at a different Woolworth’s?  Was he in the bathroom while Louis and everyone else spoke with Dr. King?  Was he too busy looking for his raincoat while his everyone else endured fire hoses in Birmingham?

The Butler- Mob attacks Freedom Riders Greyhound Bus in Anniston

And given how much this film stresses that it’s based on real events, I want to get one glowing error.  All right, the scene involving the Freedom Riders Greyhound bus being ambushed by the Ku Klux Klan is clearly taken from the actual bus attack in Anniston, Alabama.  In the film, the scene is at night, probably to make it more tense and dangerous.  The actual attack, however, took place on a Sunday in broad daylight.  I know, it’s an extremely minor nitpick, but if we’re to believe the movie version of these events are accurate, then this means that the Freedom Riders departed the bus after it had been firebombed, got the living hell beaten out of them by this mob and then the mob suddenly dispersed.  The mob didn’t kill the Freedom Riders, but left them long enough for a photographer to come by the next morning to take a picture.  Really?

More than that, when Cecil and Gloria watch the footage of the aftermath, we hear audio of a man talking about how he’d been hit with a baseball bat.  The man speaking is Hank Thomas, who was a Freedom Rider, but this audio comes from Freedom Riders, a PBS documentary that didn’t come out until 2010!  So Lee Daniels is recreating an attack on the Freedom Riders and uses audio from a film that hadn’t even been released?  Seriously?  How lazy is that?  It couldn’t much time to just have one of the actors in the film say those very lines and make it feel authentic as opposed to lazy here.

The Butler- Cecil and Louis confrontation after sit-in protest

I’m not here to trash “The Butler.”  As I said, it’s a very interesting film and comes with some very powerful performances.  Forest Whitaker brings a great level of depth and humility to his role.  His facial expressions upon hearing actions taken by Presidents, the anger he takes out on his son juxtaposed with the rage built up over years of servitude give the character this extra dimension.  After Louis’ first arrest for participating in the sit-ins, rather than focus on how the walls of segregation are beginning to crumble and how he’s standing up for himself, Cecil just sees that Louis broke the law.  Their argument turns confrontational and almost physical.  Later on, after Louis has become a Black Panther, instead of embracing or even trying to understand it, Cecil explodes and demands that Louis leave the house.  As if years of disappointment and frustration at his son’s involvement have been building to this point, the tension between Cecil and Louis reaches its zenith.  And the direction allows the actors to dictate the scene rather than music to do it for them.

The Butler- Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker as Gloria and Cecil Gaines

In fact, some of the better scenes come from the moments at home.  Winfrey and Whitaker are excellent in their scenes together.  Winfrey does come off as a concerned mother who wants to protect her son from the ugly segregationist American South, but she’s still a loving mother.  There are quiet moments where she just examines her son’s empty room.  No dialogue, just slow camera movement, pained facial expressions and the feeling that she has a lot of pent-up emotion.  She also holds a lot of resentment toward Cecil due to his long hours at the White House and less time spent with his family.  She badgers Cecil to tell him how many pairs of shoes Jackie O has, she finds herself in the arms of neighbor Howard, played by Terrence Howard, and finds solace in alcohol.

Speaking of Terrence Howard, he and Adriane Lenox as Gina feel like a couple whose dealt with each other’s crap for years, as they both have a smart retort each time the other makes some off-handed comment.  Howard runs numbers, fools around with women, tries to put the moves on Gloria and orders Gina to get him drinks.  Yet the women don’t lay down easily and have their own sharp words, which make for good banter after tense moments.

The Butler- Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr.

I was unsure at first on what to think of Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. as the White House co-workers, but shut my mouth, these guys turned in great performances.  Again, their banter gives the vibe that these two have been friends for a long time.  Gooding Jr. in particular turns in one of his better performances in a long time, whether he’s making inappropriate jokes about being intimate with women, dressing up as James Brown or getting Louis out of prison, he’s great to watch on screen and interact with other characters.

The standout performance has to be Elijah Kelly as Charles Gaines, Cecil and Gloria’s other son.  He brings some much needed comic relief to the film and it doesn’t feel forced.  At one point, the family discusses the film ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ and when Louis and his girlfriend leave, Charles points out that she came to dinner.  Anytime he appeared on screen, the scene became more enjoyable.  Side-note, on the subject of humor, I can’t help but feel that Oprah’s critique of a girl named Shaquanda is some social commentary on the way parents pick names for their children.

The Butler- James Marsden as John F. Kennedy

This brings us to the Commanders in Chief.  As mentioned, Williams, Marsden and Schreiber play their roles well and it’s nice that Cecil is given some one-on-one interactions so we see these men as more than just President of the United States, even though most never bury themselves into the performance.

The Butler- LBJ

Schreiber is a standout due to the film literally allowing us to be with him as he advises during one of his more intimate moments.

The Butler- John Cusack as Richard Nixon

Oddly enough, the actor who seemed to receive the least amount of make-up turned in one of the better performance.  John Cusack looks nothing like Richard Nixon at all, yet through his paranoia about a fly on the wall, occasional sweating and his attempts to barter the Black vote, I bought Cusack as Nixon and wish he’d been given more time to interact with Cecil during his administration.  However, it could be argued that Nixon had one of his moments with Cecil and the other Black butlers when he’s first introduced as Eisenhower’s Vice President, trying to gain the Negro vote.

The Butler- Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald and Nancy Reagan

Again, Alan Rickman received the most amount of work done to him, but I could not buy him as Ronald Reagan.  Same goes with Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy.  Given Jackie’s prominence during her husband’s administration, Kelly is not given much to do other than try and emulate Jackie O and wear the pink dress that she wore in Dallas.  Heck, the girl who plays Caroline Kennedy was more memorable than her.

My biggest issue with the film is the way the story is presented.  There’s an adage called ‘Show, don’t tell.’  With that, as opposed to flat out saying something, you let it happen on screen, naturally.  The story progress through character action and the scene is described through imagery, dialogue and emotion.  “The Butler” does a good job of this at times, but there’s a thread that lingers throughout where this adage does not apply.  Cecil narrates throughout most of the film and while narration is nothing new in cinema, it gets to the point of patronizing when Cecil narrates things that we as an audience can see for ourselves on screen.  After certain events occur, we see him have a change of heart about the Vietnam War, but this is backed up by having Cecil narrate this when he does not have to.  At times, the screenwriters don’t seem to give the audience much credit, so they spoon feed us information that we can interpret for ourselves and this is my biggest problem with the film.  The film gets quite heavy handed with the over the top music and the unnecessary narration took me out of the movie because it felt like the film had to hold my hand.

Deacons for Defense

For a moment, I’d like to compare Whitaker’s role here to the one he played in my favorite civil rights related film so far: Deacons for Defense.  There, he works at a segregated plant in Bogalusa, Louisiana, which has a large Klan presence.  When two Whites from up North come in and try to get the Black community organized, Whitaker’s character, Marcus, is hesitant, given how he feels buckling to the White man has earned him their respect.  However, his daughter becomes involved and is later injured when she is clubbed by a police officer.  Marcus, in response, chokes the officer and punches another who tries to stop him.  Following this, Marcus and his daughter face off before police enter their home, take Marcus away and beat him.  Only following these events does Marcus have a change of heart about sitting by and doing nothing in regards to combating sanctioned segregation.  I bring this film up because, like “The Butler,” Whitaker has well proven he’s capable of having tender moments and can show rage when necessary.

And it’s those human moments that make “The Butler” such a good film.  Good, not great.  What sells this film are the amazing performances by most of the cast, Whitaker and Winfrey in particular.  For a very tense film, there are light hearted moments that put the audience at ease in a movie that could have been all seriousness and no laughs.  There are flaws, but nothing too major to make me dislike the film.  Is it a necessary film?  No.  However, the focus on the family and their bond through some enduring moments make for a well done story that I think people should consider seeing.

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