LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER
Slightly Bloated, Liberal Historical Drama
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah
Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba
Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard,
Robin Williams, Clarence
Williams III, Jane Fonda, Alan
Rickman, Liev Schreiber, John
Audience: Teenagers and adults
Runtime: 129 minutes
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Director: Lee Daniels
Executive Producer: Michael Finley, Sheila C.
Johnson, Brett Johnson,
Matthew Salloway, Earl W.
Stafford, Danny Strong, Harvey
Weinstein, Bob Weinstein
Producer: Lee Daniels, Pamela Oas
Williams, Laura Ziskin, Buddy
Patrick, Cassian Elwes
Writer: Danny Strong
Address Comments To:Bob and Harvey Weinstein, Co-Chairmen, The Weinstein Company (Radius-TWC/Dimension Films)
345 Hudson Street, 13th Floor
New York, NY 10014
Phone: (646) 862-3400; Fax: (917) 368-7000
The movie follows Cecil beginning when he was a young boy in 1926, working on cotton fields owned by a rich white family. After the young owner shoots Cecil’s father point-blank in the head in front of the boy, the family’s matriarch takes Cecil in to train him to be a “house” servant. While this work is also de facto slave-level work, it teaches Cecil the valuable skills he needs to become a high-class waiter and, eventually, a butler in the White House for presidents ranging from Dwight Eisenhower through Ronald Reagan.
While Cecil spends decades serving white power figures in the White House, he finds trouble brewing at his home when his long hours drive his wife into alcoholism and a secret affair (both of which she eventually ends). Also, the eldest of his two sons grows resentful of the compromises his father makes daily. This son gets involved in the civil rights movement as part of the “Freedom Riders” and winds up being arrested dozens of times. The son’s activism forms a rift with his father that lasts for decades before they eventually reconcile in a highly touching fashion.
Working from a script by Danny Strong, Director Lee Daniels improves on his work in PRECIOUS and creates a fascinating and touching but sometimes superficial portrayal of figures large and small at a decisive era in American history. Despite casting liberal icons like John Cusack as Richard Nixon and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, the movie provides sympathetic portrayals of both Republican and Democratic presidents and Nancy Reagan, who invites the butler and his wife to a state dinner. Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) is shown to be a sweet and loving man who approves equal pay for the black servants in the White House, but is unwilling to approve sanctions against South Africa for its apartheid system of racial segregation. However, the movie doesn’t go into the political reasons behind Reagan’s opposition to sanctions, which had nothing to do with racial politics.
The movie shows the butler’s son eventually rejecting the violent rhetoric of the Black Panther Party. However, at the end of the movie, the son leads a protest rally on the South African issue and accuses President Reagan of trying to “dismantle” all civil rights protections for minorities. There’s literally no evidence for such a wild claim, but moviegoers who see the movie may not know that, especially younger ones.
Perhaps more egregious, the movie underplays the Christian roots behind much of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. There is, however, an early scene with a priest leading some students in planning a civil disobedience to stage a sit-in at a local segregated lunch counter. Despite this, there’s nothing particularly religious about his leadership, and he doesn’t appear in the rest of the movie. Toward the end of the movie, there is a scene where the butler and his wife are shown in their kitchen about to go to church. A Bible appears in that scene.
In another scene, the butler’s son is shown with the Rev. Martin Luther King and his entourage in a hotel room. Rev. King asks him what his father does, and the son reluctantly answers that he’s a butler, but not telling the reverend that his father works in the White House. King says there’s nothing to be ashamed in such service, because a dedicated, hard-working, honest black servant can be a positive influence on white people’s attitudes toward blacks and racial politics. Later, however, the movie undercuts Rev. King’s sentiment when the White House butler late in life decides that, as a black servant, he and his colleagues in the White House have had to be too servile, too fawning and too complacent. This leads him to be ashamed of his earlier opposition to his son’s civil rights activism. He ends up apologizing to his son and admitting he’s been wrong all along! This change doesn’t show up in the original Washington Post article upon which the movie is based. Ultimately, the political conflict between the butler and his son probably takes up too much of the movie. Also, the scenes with the various presidents are more like little vignettes rather than a cohesive plot.
Finally, THE BUTLER ends by making the election of Barack Obama the end result of all the civil rights efforts in the United States. While it’s true the real-life protagonist and his wife were fervent Obama supporters, Obama’s policies and public statements have actually divided Americans more than they’ve brought them together. By any reasonable reckoning, black-white relations are the worst they’ve been in recent years under this president. Electing a black president hasn’t been such a positive move after all, especially since Barack Obama only seems interested in promoting a leftist agenda rather than really improving the country’s social, cultural and economic conditions.
Thus, THE BUTLER ends up being less uplifting than it could have been. It has a little bit too much revisionist history. This gives the movie a left-leaning, secular political slant, despite the positive way it generally treats more conservative presidents like Eisenhower and Reagan. Though it treats Reagan positively overall, it can’t resist taking a couple false left-wing potshots at Reagan and his alleged policies. Also, it fails to stress the religious background of Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders. Furthermore, it undercuts a couple of its more positive uplifting qualities, such as the dignity of the butler’s long-time service to his country. The real-life protagonist’s pride in his service comes across much better in the original article. The problem is, the movie lacks a cohesive structure that leads to a riveting climax. Though they give good performances, the chemistry between Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey as the butler and his wife could be better. Also, by placing racial politics at the center of the reconciliation between the butler and his activist son, the movie deprives itself of the universal appeal it could have had. Finally, THE BUTLER has too much foul language. A couple of the presidents, particularly Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, spew several strong profanities. One scene shows Johnson sitting on the toilet. There are other, less offensive ways of depicting the crudity of these two men.
THE BUTLER is absorbing but seems to keep undercutting its more positive dramatic points. The political conflict between the butler and his son takes up too much of the movie. Though it treats Republican and Democratic presidents even-handedly, the movie has some politically correct revisionist history. For example, it underplays the Christian influence behind the civil rights movement. There’s also too much foul language. So, MOVIEGUIDE® advises strong caution for LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER.