I paraphrase one of the more thematically powerful statements made by Forest Whitaker as the titular character “Cecil Gaines” in Lee Daniels’ latest The Butler.
The film fictionalizes the true story of a butler in the White House who served (literally) every president from Eisenhower to Reagan.
The movie is good … quite good actually. While not as much of an emotional gut punch as Daniels’ superior Precious, the movie embraces its melodramatic DNA and paints a compelling portrait of an African-American family unraveling at the seams against the backdrop of America’s ongoing civil rights struggles. Like Precious, however, The Butler suffers from an overly episodic structure and crazy-Love-Boat-guess-who-is-playing-the-next-cameo-role stunt casting.
(I must say, though, that Mariah Carey owes Daniels a whole lotta love for whatever magic trick he has pulled to make her seem like an accomplished actress. No lie. Glitter? A foggy, foggy memory now. A true public service to us all.)
So back to that quote. With that statement (made, unfortunately, while Whitaker and his cinematic wife Oprah Winfrey are both attired in satiny track suits – the 80s! – and saddled with some pretty dodgy old age makeup), Cecil sums up the movie’s big idea … and it’s a doozy. We are a nation of hypocrites, spreading the gospel of freedom, human rights, and dignity across the globe while depriving those self-same ideals from our own tax-paying citizenry.
The film’s structure, contrived as can be, offers point/counterpoint as Cecil interacts with a rogues’ gallery of Commanders-in-Chief, all of whom turn to Cecil at some point, asking his opinion on key moments in civil rights history (usually while he is handing them a cup of tea or something – seriously).
Simultaneously, in a feat of the kind of logic that only appears in Oscar-bait movies like this (or Forrest Gump), Cecil’s oldest son Louis is an active participant in each and every one of those key moments: he’s at the lunch counter sit-in; he’s on the Freedom Bus; he’s with Martin Luther King, Jr.; he’s a Black Panther. And, by the way, Cecil’s other son ends up enlisting for Vietnam for some inexplicable reason, mostly so the audience has a touch point for that bit of our history as well.
The fact that the film is so compelling (and doesn’t buckle under the weight of this tv-movie-esque structure) is a testament to Daniels’ exceptional cast. And what a cast! Each president (and one First Lady) get the Hollywood treatment, with the weaker links being Robin Williams as Ike and Alan Rickman as Ronnie and the best being Liev Schreiber as LBJ (I would actually watch that spin-off movie, and I don’t like LBJ) and John Cusack as Tricky Dick.
I got a big kick from Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan – there is a spiky sweetness she brings to the brief minutes she is onscreen. Because of Daniels, I’ve become a fan of Lenny Kravitz as an actor (never much cared for him as a musician). Kravitz, as one of Cecil’s fellow White House butlers, is by no means a master thespian but he has presence – warm, welcoming, and good with a quip. Cuba Gooding, Jr., on the other hand, as another colleague of Cecil’s is grating, which is as much a function of his unnecessarily vulgar lines as of his performance.
Whitaker and Winfrey are the film’s heart. The best moments of the film are those depicting them as husband and wife, consumed by the caustic sadness and bitter anger generated living in a world that marginalizes their humanity while draining their souls.
I’m not necessarily a fan of either performer; I often find them hammy and self-absorbed, but in this film they are both grounded and compelling, with their more indulgent tendencies a welcome flourish on an, at times, overripe script.
In a summer movie season populated by superheroes, robots, anthropomorphic planes, and … Jennifer Aniston, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a welcome respite. The film is an actors’ showcase with a powerful message that we are not as far removed from systemic, institutionalized brutality and bullying as we might like to believe.