Lee Daniels’ The Butler is crudely powerful. You can object to the thuggish direction and the script that’s a series of signposts, but not the central idea, which is genuinely illuminating. An elderly black man, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), sits in the White House and rethinks his life: the murder of his cotton-picking father, who dared to glower at a white master who’d molested Cecil’s mother; his training as a “house n—–” by a plantation matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave); and his subsequent education as a waiter and then butler in the (white) halls of power. Cecil learns to have two faces, one he shows to his own people, one blankly subservient.
While presidents like Eisenhower, Kennedy, and LBJ grapple with civil rights for African-Americans, Cecil holds his tongue — all while his son, Louis (David Oyelowo), is beaten to a pulp for sitting with fellow activists at a whites-only lunch counter. In one elaborate sequence, Daniels crosscuts between the exquisite obeisance of the father at a state dinner and the bloody assault on the son, who goes on to be a Freedom Rider and a Black Panther. Over and over Daniels wallops you — but the meaning of what he’s showing isn’t as obvious as it first appears.
The movie (forcibly retitled because another studio had a film called The Butler) reminded me of that seminal moment in 1990, when the Oscars ignored Do the Right Thing and gave Best Picture to Driving Miss Daisy. Ever since, the name Driving Miss Daisy has been shorthand for how Hollywood likes its African-Americans packaged — as if that film hadn’t explicitly invoked the racial injustice that left black men like Morgan Freeman’s chauffeur with few options. Broadly speaking, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is like Driving Miss Daisy intercut with Do the Right Thing. The script by Danny Strong aims to criticize its protagonist but also to exonerate him. There is a tragic irony at the center of Cecil’s life: The more masterly he is, the more invisible.
Daniels works in elegiac, Oscar-bait mode, but the actors find ways to stay raw. As Cecil, Whitaker stands outside himself. He’s so finely tuned that you can see — or at least intuit — the brain working (and heart breaking) under his mask. Oprah Winfrey plays his wife, Gloria, and I never thought she’d be able to shed her Queen of TV persona. The character is broadly drawn (she’s an alcoholic), but Winfrey manages to go back in time and capture the self-loathing of a woman with no power. The rapport among the African-American characters—played by, among many others, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Lenny Kravitz — is so loose and convincing it’s like you’re watching another movie. And the performance of Yaya Alafia as Louis’s girlfriend — who evolves from a graceful, manicured college girl to a sneering, Afro-haired Panther — is a small triumph. The white stars try very hard, but John Cusack (Nixon) and Liev Schreiber (LBJ) are undone by their putty features, while crinkle-faced Robin Williams is no way no how the smooth-visaged Ike. Alan Rickman has a few surprising moments as Reagan (presented here as entirely lucid), although neither he nor the screenplay can make sense of the man.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler ends with the election of Barack Obama — another signpost. The movie seems to have been made with one eye on the White House screening room, but in our less cynical moments we can acknowledge that that will be a hell of a screening.
This review first appeared in the August 19, 2013 issue of New York magazine.
Postscript: Numerous commenters have objected to the word “thuggish” to describe Lee Daniels’s direction. I am sorry if it gave offense–but I never, ever thought the word had any racial connotations. Why would it? Are African-Americans associated with the word thug? If so, what the hell…?? There are a lot of thuggish white film directors. Sylvester Stallone was actually once taken seriously, although he is and has always been a thug. I think Alan Parker in movies like Midnight Express and, yes, Mississippi Burning is a thug. Thug directors bludgeon you senseless, their weapon the powerful medium of film.