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By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Review: The Butler

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The Butler is a good movie. It is not quite a great movie.

Why?

The movie of the title is about a man who was born a sharecropper, who, after suffering a tragedy born of racial dehumanization, is shown a “kindness” by the materfamilias of the plantation, and is taught to be a “house nigger.” He takes his skill set north (cotton and serving) and eventually ends up at the White House. He serves with skill and decorum over many, many years, most of which are also the years of the Civil Rights Movement in America. We meet familiar Presidents and First Ladies played by celebrities, all of whom do better than you would expect… quite well. Oprah is solid and occasionally strong. Excellent supporting cast (this film makes one miss seeing Cuba Gooding, Jr. more often). And Forest Whitaker gives a truly great performance that instructs us that his range as an actor is a wide as anyone acting today. Lee Daniels shows the most restraint as a director we have seen and delivers an altogether likeable, heartfelt, stirring film.

So. What’s the problem?

Well, there’s this other movie in The Butler. It’s about a father and a son. The father is the first independent man in his family and has had a legitimate success in his life. His son, benefiting from that success, doesn’t understand the brutal journey that his father took. As the Civil Rights Movement happens, the son feel compelled to participate, regardless of the risk to himself (or, for that matter, his family and/or his father’s government job). In many ways, the father’s idea of progress is Martin Luther King and his son’s is more on the Malcolm X side of the argument. So this tears them apart. The son has a knack for being the Forrest Gump of Civil Rights, just as his father has to direct access to the American most likely to be a part of history (the President).

I would have liked that movie, too. Beyond the genius performance of Forest Whitaker and the effective directorial recreation of history by Daniels, the performance by David Oyelowo as the son is strong and supporting work by recovered model Yaya Alafia, as a classmate turned comrade, and Elijah Kelley (who you may remember as Seaweed in Hairspray) as the other (goofier) Gaines brother is terrific. And of course there is my favorite cameo in concept… Nelsan Ellis—best known as Lafayette from “True Blood”—as Martin Luther King, Jr.

The problem I have is that the two films— both of which were legitimate, interesting choices—don’t come together to the benefit of either angle on this story. The Civil Rights movement is a critical part of Cecil Gaines’ White House story. Like so many of his generation, he managed to assimilate and didn’t want to rock the boat by reasserting his pre-slavery cultural identity. This is not just an American slavery thing, but one seen in the first arriving generation of most cultures in this country.

But as the first act of the film moves through the Eisenhower administration as The Cecil Gaines Story, in the second act, it becomes Cecil & Son… really Son & Cecil, because son’s story is much more raw and emotional and the movie never quite finds the dramatic place where these two very powerful stories really connect.

By the time you get to the third act, the disconnect of philosophies has become a personal battle. And again, interesting and well done enough. But I didn’t feel like I was seeing the deep, personal battle within Black America to decide what the right answer for the race, as a culture in America would be. This was so clearly defined by the philosophies of King & X. But not completely by coincidence, I don’t imagine, Malcolm X is barely mentioned in the film—even amidst a long hunk of Black Panther conversations—while King is not only a character in the film, but one with whom Gaines The Younger travels in the south.

Ultimately, The Butler is a King-siding film. There is even a very effective moment in which King argues for the importance of Black domestic workers in the rise of Black culture in America. And that’s all good. But the lack of a legitimate voice for the X side of it all undercuts the drama the so dominates the movie for about a third of the film.

Somehow, some way, the importance of the subject, especially as embodied by the younger Gaines, requires a clear addressing involving the older Gaines. Emotional movement happens, but again, it is personal, not about the philosophy of the core subject. I am not telling the filmmakers how to do this. There are many ways to keep the cultural context as the clear theme of the film without discussing it overtly (see The GodfatherRockyHalloweenUpLawrence of ArabiaSilver Linings Playbook, and thousands of other good and great films). But if you are going to push an idea as hard as The Butler does civil rights, it seems nearly impossible to be great and not to engage the central character in either direct embrace or denial of that central idea.

This is not, as I see it, a case of “this film differed from my expectations.” What few expectations I had, it surpassed. And I am as much a sucker for the last scenes of the film as anyone. But good or even great scenes are not enough to be great. The thematic whole of the film must work. And for me, the “other movie” in this movie is much more serious, much more layered, much more about arguing the issues in a real way. When a character from the Cecil Gaines part of the film notes that the son, Louis, is in jail for the tenth time or whatever the number is, that’s reminding me not of how serious his story is, but rather how not serious the film is about telling that story.

Thing is, Forrest Gump—and in so many ways, this is Black Gump—understood that laying too heavily on any part of history would upset the balance of the film. That is not to say that Gump is the standard by which all movies must conform. Not at all. But it was very smart about this particular trick.

The other odd Gump comparison is Cecil Gaines himself, who is beautifully measured and real, but an emotional cypher close to Gump and his mental “disconnection.” We do see Cecil having emotions, but almost all personal ones. How is his son, and how much is the Black staff at the White House getting paid? We never know how he feels about King or X or any of that outside of the prism of his work. And even the idea, which is broached softly, that he doesn’t offer personal opinions because it is his job not to, would be fine… if this was just that Cecil Gaines movie that touched on history, but didn’t wade in as deeply as this film does.

That’s really it. There are other nits I could pick, but the film is better than that. In fact, it is good enough to hold only this one thing against it. But that one thing did keep the movie from being truly great. At least, for me.

One last note… I think it would be a nasty thing to blame this disconnect I feel on the idea that this film is pandering for awards. I do not think that and I think it is offensive to suggest. I think the writer and director and perhaps Harvey Weinstein were trying to pull off a near-impossible magic trick. That is what I think the intention was… to mix and reflect between the two sides of the issue while not taking sides. (But the film does, really, take sides.) I don’t know what the awards future for this film will be, aside from a 99% sure nomination for Forest Whitaker. But the movie did not make me feel for minute—even as the last 10 minutes milked recent history pretty good—that there were any ambitions other than artistic ones driving these choices.

22 Responses to “Review: The Butler”

  1. Jack1137 says:

    I wonder how Trayvon Martin feels about that last 10 minutes?

  2. Foamy Squirrel says:

    I’m willing to bet you wont be able to find out!

  3. The Pope says:

    @Jack&Squirrel,

    Makes you feel big?

  4. Etguild2 says:

    “Lee Daniels shows the most restraint as a director we have seen”

    Given that 2 of his 3 previous films play like they were directed by a schizophrenic on acid, this is certainly good news. I really wish it was titled “Black Gump” though.

    And as for artistic merits over awards-grubbing, don’t you dare tell Oprah that. She wants her Oscar NOW!

  5. anghus says:

    this trailer makes me cringe. as did the trailer for Iron Lady. Or Dicaprio and Hammer in J Edgar. As did some of those embrassing scenes in Lincoln. Heavy handed historical fiction is the freakin’ worst. Revisionist, capsulized, gloss over the details in favor of swelling scores and truncated quotes. It’s the easiest, most manipulative shit that requires so little talent.

    Gump at least set the idea of the person as a witness and unwitting muse to events. Drifting with the wind. The Butler stuff seems to be marketing less on the witness aspect and more of this guy being the jiminy cricket on the shoulders of each President.

    That commercial where Madsen as JFK declares “you’ve changed my heart.”

    Cringe inducing.

    Biopics make me laugh a lot. Especially the inevitable phone gag where some relevant moment is conveyed over the phone. My favorite is Ali when someone is talking to him on a payphone, and as soon as he hangs up BANG, Martin Luther king is shot. I love Mann, but i was laughing in the theater.

    J Edgar had a similar moment, where someone gets a phone call, and a pained look comes across thier face and they declare “the President has been shot”. Rather than have to shoot the scene, you just shoot the reaction shot on a phone because its not important enough to actually film the scene, you just need to drop a mention to the audience of the moment before moving on with the story.

    lazy lazy lazy.

    I laughed at Lincoln, but i at least admired it’s attempt to tell a very small fraction of a very large story. An icon at the end of his journey trying to make his choices and mistakes matter. The whole idea of spanning sixty years in 120+ minutes seems to work with audiences because it’s brisk. The story moves at such a clip that there are few lulls, and its like taking people on a greatest hits tour of the last century.

    While i understand their appeal, i think its the laziest shit put to film.

  6. Etguild2 says:

    I’m not sure what’s particularly funny about Lincoln, other than the awards buzz for Tommy Lee Jones playing 19th century version of himself in a bad wig….it’s really an encapsulation of legislative horse-trading in 19th century Congress, not a biopic, and I’m not sure it could have possibly been done better.

    I feel you otherwise.

  7. anghus says:

    Oh man, the Tommy Lee Jones award buzz was hysterical. He was solid, but that final reveal scene was straight out of a TV movie.

    The funny stuff? The guy trying to shoot James Spader as he lobbies him. The way Mike Stuhlbarg (an actor i love) screams out I… VOTE… YES!!!!!! It was half dead serious, half Spielbergian corny. I liked parts of both but crammed together it made the whole thing feel like i was watching a mini series with chapters missing. Lincoln lacked good connective tissue.

  8. Random dude says:

    I find it hilarious that people didn’t like The Paperboy but actually like The Butler. I bet even Daniels is like “wtf are people thinking?”. He does something that actually requires his over-the-top sensibilities, something different that even people who absurdly think is the worst film ever made have to at least accept is unlike anything they’ve quite seen before, and they all hate it. He does something completely by the numbers and overtly sentimental and he’s “back in form”? Depressing.

  9. Etguild2 says:

    Well…yeah it’s Spielberg so yeah it’s corny. I think it had to be to hold people’s attention though, otherwise it’s a Ken Burns Documentary on the 14th Amendment. Maybe capital-I Importance trumped a lot of complaints I’d otherwise have, kind of like “Milk” did (I VOTE YES reminds me a lot of “I can’t leave Harvey. I have…no..legs”).

    PAPERBOY just went too far, it’s like he couldn’t quite control himself…the over-the-top antics by Kidman, the pulpy S&M, the eye-patch, the ridiculous Cusack accent. Zac writhing around in his underwear felt like trolling Disney fans…. By the end he’d gone full SHADOWBOXER…which I was fine with, it had become a southern fried X-Rated “Wild Things.” Not a good movie though…

  10. Foamy Squirrel says:

    The Pope: Missing The Point Since 232AD

  11. David Poland says:

    Random… you answer the question in your comment. “Completely by the numbers.”

    I don’t think Lee was ever in this form before. And to be fair, it’s not completely by the numbers. There are some interesting choices in the film and beautiful performances. The attempt to have it both ways was, I suspect, Lee’s kink in this one. And it’s the problem with the film resonating more than it does/as much as it feels like it should.

  12. Chris says:

    “All hate it?” Like all generalizations, that’s not true, Random. (And I totally agree that “Paperboy” was a film where his crappy overkill technique perfectly complemented the material.)

  13. cadavra says:

    “J Edgar had a similar moment, where someone gets a phone call, and a pained look comes across thier face and they declare “the President has been shot”. Rather than have to shoot the scene, you just shoot the reaction shot on a phone because its not important enough to actually film the scene, you just need to drop a mention to the audience of the moment before moving on with the story…lazy lazy lazy.”

    Wrong wrong wrong. The movie is J. EDGAR, not JFK. You stay on your central character. Filmmaking 101.

  14. Daniella Isaacs says:

    Points well made, Poland. I’m kind of sick of movies about the late 60s-early 70s that short change (or dismiss as “going too far”, i.e. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE) any political position left of moderate progressivism. That’s to short change a huge percentage of the people participating in the politics of the era as well as their goals.

  15. anghus says:

    “Wrong wrong wrong. The movie is J. EDGAR, not JFK. You stay on your central character. Filmmaking 101.”

    They still could have made an effort to convey the moment without resorting to the phone bit.

    hell, even someone walking up and telling him is infinitely more inspired than

    RING
    HELLO?
    WHAT? HE’S DEAD?

  16. cadavra says:

    I like the terse economy of it. Very typically Eastwood.

  17. Johnnie says:

    This movie sucked. Gump worked because Gump wasn’t meant to be an actual person. He was a construct, a symbol, who took you thru all these eras. Gaines, or his real life counterpart, was a real person. So when Daniels presents every single scene as THE MOST IMPORTANT SCENE IN HISTORY you wanna laugh. I mean, there’s a scene where (SPOILER) in literally 20 seconds, 1) Gaines celebrates his birthday, 2) Gaines disowns his son, telling him to “f-off” and 3) Gaines learns his other son is dead. Any of those would be fine for one scene. Put all three in one short scene and you’re becoming a melodramatic soap opera. The actor playing the son was terrific. I just wish he didn’t have the burden of having to embody every young Black man from that era and be present for every single important African-American injustice from that era. I mean, REALLY, he was in the motel room with MLK right before MLK died?! I’m surprised he wasn’t standing next to Emmitt Till when he whistled at that white woman.
    Whittaker is amazing. He almost recedes into himself. I just wish the movie around him was better.

  18. chris says:

    Speaking of cringe-inducing, Anghus:

    Caroline Kennedy, at around five years old, to Cecil, whose son is a Freedom Rider, “Uncle Bobby told my daddy the freedom bus exploded.”

  19. Etguild2 says:

    AO Scott goes all in…

  20. Jan AbdulRahim says:

    Opinions everyone has one.No matter how it was presented, many realities of life was touched on, of course how you receive it depends on who and where you are with your contentment of life. And even if it doesn’t receive an oscar if you see the movie hopefully you will get the necessary points without negativity

  21. Krisha R. says:

    To: David Poland,
    I noticed some problems with sentence structure and verb usage in your article. Sounds like you need a new ‘Editor.’ I’m available!

  22. Joe says:

    Lee Daniels took a real story and turned it into a cliched “message movie” packed with lies, spin and dishonesty, especially concerning Ronald Reagan. Here’s the message: “Democrats are good. Republicans are bad. Reagan was a racist”. But let’s just go over a few bits of history that were conveniently ignored by the filmmakers: LBJ escalated the war in Vietnam, which directly led to The Butler’s son getting killed over there. LBJ never would have gotten civil rights legislation if it wasn’t for Republicans. The people who torched the Freedom Riders bus and beat Blacks sitting at the “White” lunch counter were Democrats. Nixon was elected to end the war in Vietnam, which is exactly what he did. Reagan was NOT a racist. Reagan’s support of lifting economic sanctions against South Africa had nothing to do with race and everything to do with the cold war geopolitics of the day. The Black middle class tripled under Reagan. It was Reagan who promoted The Butler to White House Mater ‘D Hotel. Reagan placed the first woman on the Supreme Court. Oh, and by the way, The Butler’s mother was not raped by a White man and his father was not shot in cold blood when he protested. The Butler did not have an older son who was a member of the Black Panthers. The Butler’s younger son was not killed in Vietnam. The Butler’s wife was not an alcoholic, nor did she cheat on him. The Butler did not resign from the White House under protest, in fact he was very fond of the Reagan’s. This movie is just Hollywood liberals trying to promote their own agenda and suggest things about people that simply aren’t true. All this movie is designed to do is whip up racial strife. Lee Daniels ought to be sued for libel.

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