Lee Daniels’ The Butler captures America’s evolution on race via a historically erroneous narrative based oh, so loosely on an actual person’s life but rife with sucker punches, ill-advised stunt casting and a heaping helping of Victimology 101.
Hard to expect anything else from screenwriter Danny Strong, responsible for the most partisan screed in modern film history–the HBO drama Game Change.
The Butler will likely strike its intended Oscar targets, for it not only portrays President Ronald Reagan in a racially damning light but hammers home the notion that blacks, then and now, remain subservient to the system.
Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker stars as Cecil Gaines, a soft-spoken man who finds work as a butler after a vile Southerner (Alex Pettyfer) kills his father. Cecil learns how to serve others, the best ways to appear invisible to his employers and the wisdom of keeping his political musings to himself.
All of the above help him ascend to arguably the best serving gig in the country–working in the White House. Cecil cares for a series of presidents, portrayed in often cartoonish fashion by Liev Schreiber (President Johnson), John Cusack (President Nixon) and Alan Rickman (President Reagan), among others.
It’s Forrest Gump meets the Civil Rights movement, and Daniels’ ability to coax realistic exchanges between his workaday characters evaporates during these presidential asides.
We also see glimpses of Cecil’s home life, from dealing with his hard-drinking wife (Oprah Winfrey, excellent if poorly integrated into the story) to distancing himself from a rebellious son (David Oyelowo).
Daniels, who previously directed the exemplary Precious, simply has too much material on his plate. He makes the common mistake of including all the Big Historical Moments in his narrative, from the death of President Kennedy to Emmitt Till’s tragic murder. Those obvious touchstones, combined with the presidential cameos–say, that’s a bald Robin Williams as President Eisenhower–rob an otherwise potent story of its authenticity.
The film skips over both Presidents Ford and Carter, the former likely due to the butler sharing a birthday with the Republican figure.
The birthday nugget comes straight from The Washington Post story on which the fact-based film is inspired. A sequence featuring President Ford and Cecil celebrating their birthday together, as described in the article, apparently didn’t feed Daniels’ need to show a steady stream of black victimization. That comes into play once more within a fallacious subplot involving black butlers receiving less pay than their white peers well into the 1980s.
Daniels and Strong still made room to portray President Reagan as unmoved by the notion of black suffering. One heavy handed moment finds Rickman’s Reagan announcing he’ll block any effort to employ sanctions against South Africa for its apartheid policies. Reagan had good reason for the decision, hoping to work with the government’s anti-communist faction while prodding the country to abandon its race-based policies.
The scene plays out in coal-black and white, and later we see Oyelowo’s character denouncing Reagan’s position on all civil rights matters just to hammer home the fictional point.
We also suffer through Rickman wondering aloud if he is on the wrong side of history, just in case anyone in the theater wasn’t quite sure what Strong wanted to shout.
The film lionizes several Democratic presidents, like President Kennedy, while portraying President Nixon as the sweaty, mean-spirited sort that fulfills the Left’s most obvious caricature.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler actually serves a noble purpose, portraying the remarkable growth of a country committed to equality but saddled with a culture that too often insisted on the opposite. Sadly, the film’s polemical missteps and factual land mines only serve to divide, not unite behind that worthy statement.