"Slightly Bloated, Liberal Historical Drama"
LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER is an elegant and compelling but fictionalized and slightly bloated story about Eugene Allen, the longest-serving black butler in White House history, and the historic changes he saw. It has a strong moral worldview with some overt Christian references. These are offset, however, by some liberal politically correct attitudes and revisionist history about the United States. Except for a couple scenes and a light (but perhaps indiscernible) lack of chemistry, Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey hit home runs with their performances of African-Americans caught up in sweeping historical changes from the 1950s through the present. In fact, the movie has the feel of being an African-American FORREST GUMP in the way that its main character, renamed Cecil Gaines, is present for countless historical decisions.
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.
(BB, CC, PCPC, RHRH, LLL, VV, S, AA, D, M) Strong moral worldview with some overt Christian references but marred by some liberal politically correct revisionist history that downplays the Christian roots of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and has one character falsely saying that President Reagan was trying to “dismantle” all the past civil rights laws, plus the movie sometimes undercuts some moral messages (for example, at one point it overtly suggests that being a hardworking and trustworthy, albeit complacent, servant like the protagonist is a good thing but then the protagonist decides to retire when he sees how servants are practically forced to be too complacent while serving others), but the movie also shows the title character’s son rejecting the violence of the Black Panthers though there’s a shot of a blackboard after a Black Panther session that implies there were still some good, peace-oriented principles in that movement so the movie may need another viewing to more fully evaluate it; about 29 obscenities, 10 strong profanities (which seem to be said only by the white American presidents the title character encounters in various scenes, especially Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon), and three light profanities; brief but strong violence such as white man shoots father in the head in front of father’s son after white man took the mother to a woodshed to rape her (the rape isn’t shown), some scenes of street rioting, protestors being grabbed and taken away, water hoses and dogs used on protestors, KKK members surround bus full of civil rights protestors in a tense scene, food products are dumped on protestors at a lunch counter that was off limits for black patrons; no depicted sex but talk about wife’s adultery and one scene shows her sitting on couch with lover but nothing salacious happens and that’s when she decides to break off the illicit affair, plus brief kissing and an implied marital sex scene but not salacious; no nudity; much casual alcohol use and protagonist’s wife has a drinking problem but she overcomes it; smoking; and, racism but rebuked, black servants at White House are denied equal pay until President Reagan helps end it, and hungry man steals a piece of cake by breaking a window late at night.
LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER is an elegant and compelling but fictionalized historical drama about Eugene Allen, the longest-serving black butler in White House history, and the historic changes he saw. The movie changes Allen’s name to Cecil Gaines to give it more leeway in telling its story. It begins with the murder of Cecil’s father by the white farmer paying them to pick cotton. Cecil learns how to be a house servant. Eventually, he becomes a kitchen servant in the White House in 1952 and an eyewitness to history until the mid 1980s. His job’s economic benefits don’t translate into a positive relationship with his politically active eldest son.
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.