Lee Daniels’ film, The Butler, is one of the major surprises of the summer! The movie, which traces the history of an African-American family from the cotton fields of the South to our nation’s capital set against the panorama of the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century, focuses on the conflict between father and son in their differing approaches to the questions of race.
The script by Danny Strong is often overly ambitious to a fault and sometimes reads like an inflated docudrama. Fortunately, however, the parts of the story which center on the generational clash concerning racial injustice are sufficient to sustain the film through some of its sketchier, more dogmatic moments.
Daniels’ direction and Andrew Dunn’s cinematography use a great many match cuts to parallel the lives of father and son to the point that these become too obvious and redundant as tools. While it would likely have been prohibitive budget-wise to re-enact all the great moments of the Civil Rights Era (and while film rights especially in the case of Martin Luther King are often an issue), staging more of these historic incidents (like King’s assassination) would have added drama and impact. One thinks, for example, of how seamlessly Emilio Estevez was able to integrate live footage with the human story in his movie Bobby.
What makes the film impressive besides the ardent seriousness of its theme is the incredible ensemble acting. Stars and newcomers, leads and cameos bring a level of dedication that breathes fire into the story. Forest Whitaker gives a monumental, moving account of Cecil Gaines, the White House butler; in a nuanced reading David Oyelowo succeeds in making his activist son Louis a human being rather than a zealot; Oprah Winfrey radiates warmth and wisdom as Gloria, Cecil’s wife. There are brilliant cameos from the well-known actors playing the various Presidents (though some of their accents do not suggest their historical characters): Robin Williams a sensitive Eisenhower, James Marsden a brash JFK, Live Schreiber a raunchy Lyndon Johnson, Alan Rickman an eerily accurate Ronald Reagan, and John Cusak an absolutely note-perfect Richard Nixon. Activist liberal Jane Fonda make a wonderfully ironic appearance as Nancy Reagan, nailing the First Lady’s mannerisms in her few minutes on screen. Vanessa Redgrave makes a brief but memorable appearance as the plantation owner’s elderly mother, as does Mariah Carey as Cecil’s raped and abused mother.
The movie is clearly made with love, commitment and great deal of compassion for the full spectrum of ideology and involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. One of the best lines comes when Dr. King counsels Louis and his other followers not to judge the older generation too harshly. Speaking of African-Americans in domestic service like Cecil Gaines, King says “Subservient can really be subversive.”
The Butler is one of those summer sleepers that demands to be seen, the kind of film that stirs memories and prods the conscience anew.