There are two reviews here. The first is the simplest, and most direct, way to communicate just how good Lee Daniels' The Butler (just The Butler, from this point on). Right when the credits rolled and the dedication to everyone who participated in the Civil Rights movement came on, the old women behind me started crying and one of them said she can't start crying yet because she didn't have her tissue. I looked behind me, told her I was already crying too, and she grabbed my hand. We sat there, just letting the tears come out for a moment, then went back out into the world. The Butler is a wonderful experience that binds strangers with how powerfully told it is, and I hope you find someone to share it with.
Here's the longer version: why has it taken so long to get a proper film about the Civil Rights movement out? I've watched plenty of dry documentaries, uplifting and overly sentimental after-school films that deal with one or two scenarios, and plenty of films with pretty white faces on the cover. What we haven't gotten, until now, was a proper film about the Civil Rights movement done from the perspective of those who lived it, not as a footnote to the story of some mentally handicapped boy who will be forever ignorant to his unearned privilege.
I don't know how I would have felt if this monumental achievement was bad but I'm not here to deliver that news. The Butler is fantastic. It's an illuminating glance into our recent history told by the people who transformed the United States in the process, both in front of the cameras taking the punches and in the shadows serving it. The power of the film lies in its willingness to have a conversation with history, to allow dueling ideologies to play out in long-form scenarios that envelop the lives of the Gaines family for over 80 years of their history. The Butler draws the best kind of inspiration from history, the kind that can tell its story in broad details that do not lose any power, and whose fiction speaks just as loudly as the events that are portrayed.
The Butler draws inspiration from, but is not directly analogous to, the life of Eugene Allen, a butler who rose to work in the White House for over thirty years. His life is fictionalized by Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who we see in the opening scenes working in a farm in Georgia and watches father's master shoot and kill him for even trying to speak about the rape of his mother. The mistress of the house takes Cecil in and teaches him the ways of a good servant, the perpetual presence never felt but whose effects can always be seen. Because Cecil is so excellent at what he does he catches the attention of the White House staff and brought aboard. The film follows Cecil as he serves through several administrations during the most tumultuous time for Civil Rights, and for his family.
The film is one of the only ones I can think of that has such a long-term debate about Civil Rights and what approach was the most effective. Cecil's family is divided up into people who are for and against various aspects of legislation, movements, and personalities. Danny Strong's script avoids the mistake of making any one person the mouthpiece for any aspect of the Civil Rights movement. What it does is bring elements of history forward in conversations bristling with conflicting ideas and emotions as everyone discusses what should be done. The emotions are big, but this film does not for a second convince people that everything happened in such a straightforward fashion that equal rights were all-but-guaranteed, it allows Cecil's family to bounce off each other in equal parts hope, confusion, and frustration.
Throughout all of this is Whitaker, anchoring the tumultuous events of the film in a performance that is the picture of dignity. He doesn't have room to grandstand and he keeps his emotions tight. But combining the pain in his eyes with the warmth of his smile as he asks, "If there's anything else he can do?" is not an easy thing. The Butler also sees the return of Oprah Winfrey to the world of acting as Cecil's partner. I say partner because she is every bit as important to the film as Cecil is and Oprah makes the most of it. I've grown up with her as a talk show icon and less as a performer but her counterbalance to Whitaker, feeling her way through these times with a no less practical approach to keeping herself happy and her family together, is punchier from an emotional standpoint and the other center of the film. Strong wrote an excellent part in Gloria Gaines, and Oprah does it justice and more.
Many of the other roles, especially that of the Presidents, could have opened the door to a lot of stunt casting and grand mugging for the camera. I worried a bit when the doors to the Oval Office opened and there sat Robin Williams as President Eisenhower. But in practice what The Butler does is free up a lot of performers to do some of their best work in years. Presidents and other influential historical figures alike are well served by Williams, James Marsden, Melissa Leo, Alan Rickman, and many others. Even people that the general public has written off long ago, like Cuba Gooding Jr., do excellent jobs. They all quickly distill the essence of their role in the Civil Rights movement without devolving into caricature and each contribute an important part to those final moments.
This all brings me back to director Lee Daniels. There are directors I like more, and that typically do better, but I'm hard-pressed to think of a better director making American films. Precious is nightmare, sometimes beautiful, dealing with the underside of the American Dream for those not afforded it. The Paperboy is as much a lurid drama as it is a deconstruction of the myth of the South. Now Daniels has made a film we have needed for a long time. He speaks in stark images that do not spell everything out in simple terms. There's Cecil, sitting old and alone in that chair, wondering just why that son his felt different than he did. The Gaines' home, slowly getting enveloped in red, as the Black Panther movement and Vietnam War both gain traction and draw their price. The pace never drags, and he never preaches, he just has the know-how to let his performers and images tell their story.
The Butler is not a film for cowards who are afraid of grand emotions or unwilling to confront the recent truth of our country. It is dignified and powerful, ending on a note of hope but not for a second implying that the struggle ended in 2008. I loved this movie and every tear it got out of me. Films are so rarely have the potential to be as powerful a bonding experience as this and I hope you, too, find someone's hand in the end.