By D.G. McCabe
Directed by Lee Daniels, U.S., 2013
The Butler is not based on a true story. A Hollywood screenwriter came up with an idea for a movie after reading an article in the Washington Post discussing African-American staff at the White House. The article specifically highlighted the experience of one Eugene Allen, who was on the White House staff from 1952-1986 and retired as head butler. This, and two or three plot points, are the only commonalities between Allen and the film’s main character, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). Cecil Gaines the character, his background, his experiences, and his family, are entirely fictitious.
Now that we cleared up that little piece of fictitious marketing, we can explore the film. The film is above average, it does a few things very well, a few other things not so much.
The Butler is essentially the story of a father and a son. It is at its best when it is focusing on this relationship. The father (Whitaker) is of course a White House butler who, against impossible odds, has made a nice, comfortable place in the world for his family. In the late 1950’s, his son, Louis (David Oyelowo), leaves Washington, D.C. for Fisk University in Nashville. Louis immediately begins participating in the Civil Rights Movement at Fisk.
Cecil sees himself as having accomplished and struggled a great deal so that his son can have a better life. Louis wishes to use those advantages for the betterment of his fellow man. The pair’s failure to listen and communicate these points, respectively, results in an unnecessary schism between them. The actors who play these characters do a fantastic job investing the audience in this conflict.
The film’s understory between these two men is its strongest aspect, and it suffers when this relationship is out of focus. The movie is at its weakest when it tries to cover too much ground concerning the Civil Rights Movement. It places Louis seemingly everywhere at once (he’s at a lunch counter protest, he’s on a freedom ride, he’s in Birmingham and Selma and Memphis and Oakland) and has Cecil in the Oval Office at only the most opportune times, ignoring the fact that the conversations he’d be privy to wouldn’t be anywhere near that level of importance. Certainly there haven’t been a lot of movies about the Civil Rights Movement, but that doesn’t mean The Butler has to take it upon itself to stuff every thing it can about the Civil Rights Movement into two hours. Its attempt to do so needlessly weighs the movie down.
Forrest Gump (1994) takes a similar tack, it’s true, but there is a difference between The Butler and Forrest Gump in focus. Forrest Gump is a fantasy, and succeeds because it is not really about the title character, but about the Baby Boomer generation looking at itself in the mirror. The Butler tries to be both a generational mirror and an intimate, family drama. It succeeds at the latter, but the results as to the former are far more mixed.
You might like The Butler if: You tend to enjoy intimate, family dramas set against the backdrop of major historical events.
You might not like The Butler if: You’re turned off by the misleading marketing, or you prefer your movies to be more focused on character rather than overarching historical events.
(c) D.G. McCabe