As a white, privileged young woman who has been given much in her life, writing about racism is difficult, and a little bit scary. As I watched The Butler, I felt fairly ill equipped to comment on much of the subject matter. It just feels weird to try and criticize a film like this one, so clearly not meant for me, this telling of a story that is not my story, a history that is not my history.
I couldn’t fully understand the impact of what I was seeing as I’ve never experienced anything like the violence and hatred leveled at characters in this film. I have only known a Southern California upbringing where race relations seemed far from the suburbs, and where I naively assumed for many years that we had moved beyond something so basic as marginalizing others, something so common as racism. Now an adult, I drive through Skid Row every day on my way to and from work, seeing first hand the devastating effects of years of poverty and marginalization, legacies of racism that reach out and strangle and oppress people even to this day. I feel powerless to help, and unsure of what to do about any of it.
All that being said, I wish The Butler was a better movie.
The Butler is the kind of film that almost certainly was envisioned as a stage play. A main character who spends much of the film narrating events, spanning decades from the ’20s to modern times, an event-driven plot that mostly takes place in a few locations and an entire production lacking in cinematic frills — it’s easy to understand why The Butler was made, but it’s unclear why it was made into a movie. With 41 producers, no less!
The plot follows a man, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who escapes a life of cotton-picking in the ’20s, and makes something of himself by becoming an expert butler, eventually landing in the White House. Over the years, he serves under many different administrations, befriending president after president, as his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) struggles to raise their sons, one of whom (David Oyelowo) is a radical civil rights activist, clashing with his parents at every turn.
The Butler traces a line through the decades down into modern times and shows us how far we’ve come from the shocking events of even a half century ago, expertly melding documentary footage of civil rights protests with re-enactments. Also, literally everyone ever is in this film, from John Cusack to Lenny Kravitz, Vanessa Redgrave to Cuba Gooding Jr., and with such an enormous cast, nearly every role becomes a cameo as director Lee Daniels attempts to cover most of a century in just under two hours.
Lee Daniels certainly gets some wonderful performances out of his ensemble, especially the effervescent Forest Whitaker and Oprah, though she has been in front of the camera so continuously for so many years it’s fairly hard to judge her performance. (Every time she speaks, you think, “That’s Oprah! Oprah is speaking. Oprah is done talking now. What will Oprah say next? Oprah.”) One of my favorites may be Alan Rickman as Reagan, and also James Marsden as Kennedy, and much of the joy and delight of the film comes from watching Whitaker interact with the various presidents. This comes at a cost, however. We fail to explore much of Gaines’ interior life, as there’s just too much going on. We see events occur around and to him, but rarely are given enough time to see him process, or contemplate what they might mean. Oyelowo’s portrayal of the radical son is interesting at times, but mostly takes away significantly from the more intriguing goings on at the White House.
Most noticeable is that while this was an independent and fairly low-budget film, Daniels fails to utilize the exceptional qualities or capabilities of film. Disappointing, when you’re dealing with the entirety of American history and at least eight different presidents. Shots are unimaginative, there’s a fairly heavy-handed voice over, and the entire thing is presented with the panache and quality of a Lifetime movie.
As for objectionable material, the word “n*gger” is thrown around throughout the film and never fails to shock, especially in context. It felt as if I had never heard the word before, so violently was it used, so awful was it to hear. Which, perhaps, is the correct usage, a warning shot fired in the dark, frightening and abusive. Otherwise, Oprah calls someone a “bitch,” and there’s hinted at rape and sexual violence early on. Beyond those issues, the film is fairly tame.
However moving the film is, how wonderfully it ties together real, national events to the particular, familiar life of one man and his family, it still remains a bit broad, sweeping, and calculating. The Butler cannot overcome the rushed pace, the lack of unique style and the creeping suspicion that it’s got its eyes set on Being An Important Film. Rather than tell one man’s story, it attempts to tell the stories of everyone he ever met, as well. As if by knowing the whole we could know the particulars. While this may be emotionally convincing and impressive in its own way, much is lost by such a method of storytelling. Daniels is capable of telling the particulars, as he did so very well in Precious, and in The Paperboy, but here he spreads himself too thin, demanding too much of a film that expects too little from its audience.
Amanda Mae Meyncke writes for Movies.com, Fandango, Interview Magazine and other sites. She is a costume designer too, currently working on the second feature film from the boys behind 2011’s Bellflower.