By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
Review: The Butler
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 Godfather, Rocky, Halloween, Up, Lawrence of Arabia, Silver 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.