The main strength of Lee Daniels’ The Butler is its depiction of working-class blacks doing what they need to do to succeed and thrive in the context of great social change and upheaval. This is the kind of story we really haven’t seen, and to the director’s credit, it’s a story that is done extremely well, even as it gets lost in too much grandiosity.
The title character is Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a butler who worked for seven different presidents over the course of 34 years. The movie begins with Cecil waiting to meet President Obama; it then delves back in time to the butler’s youth, when his mother gets raped and his father killed by a nasty cotton farmer. The farmer’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave) promptly takes Cecil in to become a “house nigger.” Prior to all this, Cecil is warned by his father not to mess with “the man,” as, “it’s his world,” and they just occupy it. Cecil takes the lesson to heart, even as he leaves home to escape the man’s world, and he eventually becomes a first-rate employee, combining quality service with inherent tact.
The performances in The Butler are generally stellar—especially Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, as his troubled wife—but the movie suffers for its depiction of whites (presidential or other) as complete imbeciles or monsters. Robin Williams plays an unrecognizable Eisenhower, and Alan Rickman an equally unknowable Reagan, both alike only in how dim they are with respect to understanding race relations. Meanwhile, the conflicts between Cecil and his son Louis (Daniel Oyelowo), a young man who chooses a more radical path to promote racial equality, are marred by the fact that the script has the younger man present at pretty much every major happening in the civil-rights struggle from the Selma marches to the rise of the Black Panther party. This comes off as blatantly false, and takes away from what is the essential, and very real, father-son conflict. There is an extremely powerful moment, truly the movie’s apex, in which the generational conflict comes to the fore at a very uncomfortable dinner scene, which culminates in Winfrey’s character basically bitch-slapping her son and reminding him of all he owes the butler. While eventually Louis and Cecil come to terms with each other, the movie is unable to funnel the power of this scene into a satisfying conclusion.