Films that have racial themes almost always seem to fall in one of two categories. You have the Driving Miss Daisy side of the aisle where noble white people embrace the honorable black people and triumph over racism in some small, individualized way. On the other hand, you have more radical, explosive films where racial misunderstandings ignite violent confrontation, and the viewer sees bigotry at its most extreme. Do the Right Thing and Fruitvale Station are the first such films to come to mind. It is rare that you find a film that provides a more balanced middle ground when it comes to racism and civil rights. Lee Daniels’ The Butler is that type of film.
Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) grew up on a cotton farm in Georgia. Although it was the 1920s, well after the emancipation of the slaves, he and his family suffered the same types of indignities at the hands of their white bosses. As a child, Cecil became a server in the main house of a small plantation. As he reached adulthood, he left that oppressive environment to become a butler in high-end hotels in the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore area. His dedication to his craft ultimately lands him on the staff of the White House, serving under every president from Eisenhower to Reagan. He, and the audience, become witnesses to decades of both bigotry and racial progress.
Along the way, Cecil’s commitment to his job and his White House “family” distance him from his own spouse and children. His wife, Gloria, turns to alcohol to soothe her personal demons. Cecil’s oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo) joins the Civil Rights Movement, and the audience follows his journey from pacifist civil disobedience to his membership with radical groups like the Black Panthers. Along the way, Louis and his father come to represent the two sides of racial progress in America. Cecil leads by quiet example and shows that black men can be reliable, trustworthy and hard-working while Louis fans the flames of rebellion and fights aggressively for change.
The Butler is anchored by stand-out performances from Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey. Both performances are subtle without the histrionics that often accompany this type of film and subject matter. Whitaker’s eyes alone can convey everything Cecil is experiencing without requiring the actor to utter a single word. His performance should be remembered at Oscar time. And Winfrey proves that she is an actress first and talk show hostess/media mogul second. Gloria could have easily become a caricature, a mean-spirited shrew who hides in the bottom of a bottle. Instead, Winfrey gives Gloria a quiet, loving humanity that brings the character to life.
There are a host of outstanding supporting performances as well. From David Oyelowo to Terrence Howard to Lenny Kravitz, The Butler features a who’s-who of young African American actors that will leave you asking why we only see casts like this in films about historical figures. Is the world still not ready for a black Jack Reacher or Jack Ryan? You need only look at Hollywood casting decisions to realize that we haven’t come as far as we might think.
The behind-the-scenes MVP is the script by Danny Strong. Those of you expecting a predictable feel-good film would be mistaken. The final act of the film goes in directions I never anticipated, and the father-son plot arc between Cecil and Louis is so effective because it never manipulates the audience or falsely plucks at your heartstrings. Neither man is shown as right or wrong. They are two sides of the same coin, and their relationship will leave you wondering which side you would have chosen if you found yourself in the same position.
The Butler happily avoids the pitfalls of “message” films. It doesn’t preach. It doesn’t manipulate the audience. It presents established history through the eyes of one very unique family. And it does it extremely well.
8 out of 10
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.