Review by Pamela Zoslov
One wonders what Gene Allen would have thought of the movie inspired by his life. On one hand, he might have appreciated Whitaker's subtle, dignified portrayal, which captures the essence of a man described by a White House staff colleague as “a professional in everything he did.” He might, however, have taken issue with the portrayal of his beloved wife, Gladys, here called Gloria and played by Oprah Winfrey. Daniels, a director not known for restraint, and Strong have imagined Cecil's wife as a blowsy alcoholic who, feeling neglected while her husband works long hours at the White House, takes up with a dissolute, numbers-running neighbor (a languid Terrence Howard).
Around the modest figure of Gaines, Daniels has created an energetic panorama of American and black civil rights history, with Gaines as its silent witness. Daniels, who endured a brutal childhood as the son of a police officer who disapproved of his sexuality, is a director given to extremes. He seemed to revel in amping up the luridness in MONSTER'S BALL, PRECIOUS and THE PAPERBOY, which he rendered unrecognizable to the novel's author, Pete Dexter. It's possible that depicting a quiet, uncontroversial man like Gaines wasn't that exciting to Daniels. He seems more interested in the swirl of events than in Gaines, who remains, at the end of the two-hours-plus epic, a cipher as the film takes the audience on a ride, by turns exciting and stultifying, through eight decades of American civil rights history. In other words, it's less about “The Butler” than “What the Butler Saw” (apologies to Joe Orton).
The essence of the movie is contained in this quote from Wil Haygood's obituary of Gene Allen: “Mr. Allen was mindful that with the flowering of the black power movement, many young people questioned why he would keep working as a butler, with its connotations of subservience. But the job gave him great pride, and he endured the slights with dignified posture.”
The conflict between activism and subservience is dramatized by the character of Louis, Gaines' older son. Played by David Oyelowo, Louis is a thoughtful young man who grows up painfully aware of racial injustice. Louis' life becomes a one-man tour of civil rights advocacy. He participates in the lunch counter sit-ins, becomes a Freedom Rider and a Black Panther before entering electoral politics and organizing anti-apartheid protests.
His father Cecil, when hired to work at the White House, was been cautioned, amusingly, “We have no tolerance for politics at the White House,” and he has learned the lesson well, keeping his opinions to himself while incendiary issues are being discussed in the Oval Office, even those – like Vietnam, where his younger son is serving – that affect him personally. “Never listen or react to conversation,” the maitre d' who hired him instructs. “You hear nothing, you see nothing, you only serve.” Gaines' apolitical stance irritates young Louis, who wants to go hear Emmett Till's mother, Mamie, speak. “Ain't no good can come of that,” Cecil tells his son. “That happened down South.”
The theme of subservience resonates through the film. Louis, who has joined the Panthers before becoming disenchanted with their violent tactics, accuses his father of being an Uncle Tom (and worse, disses Dad's favorite actor, Sidney Poitier, as a white man's idea of what a black man should be). The issue is also relevant for filmmakers, who have had to answer criticism that movies about black history too often focus on domestic servants (THE HELP) or heroic white rescuers (MISSISSIPPI BURNING, THE LONG WALK HOME, THE HELP, LINCOLN). As if to respond to these criticisms, Strong's script gives Martin Luther King Jr. some eloquent words praising black domestics as “the real subversives.”
The opening scenes show young Cecil Gaines, the child of sharecropper parents in Macon, Georgia, learning to pick cotton. The horrors of slavery are compressed into an intense sequence in which Cecil's mother (Mariah Carey) goes insane after being raped by an evil overseer. His father, who dares to raise an objection, is shot dead before little Cecil's eyes. (This “Uncle Tom's Cabin” sequence has the Daniels touch, the heavy-handed opposite of “the Lubitsch touch.”) The aged mistress of the house (Vanessa Redgrave), takes young Cecil under her wing. “Stop crying. I'm gonna teach you how to be a house niggah.” (Said no one, ever.)
After learning the art of domestic service, young Cecil lights out on his own. Broke and starving in North Carolina, he breaks a hotel kitchen window behind which beckon some frosted cakes. His Jean Valjean-like act of desperation earns Cecil a job at the hotel and sets the course for his career of professional service. While working at an elite Washington, D.C. Hotel, where he recalls thinking “I never dreamed my life could be so good,” he is recruited by the White House maitre d'.
The panoply of history that plays out before our eyes is, at times, enthralling. Rhythmic intercutting highlights meaningful parallels. Louis and his fellow protesters sit at the Woolworth's lunch counter and declare, “We would like to be served.” This is intercut with scenes of Cecil ceremoniously setting a White House table — to serve. The lunch counter sit-in grows violent as the whites berate, taunt, slap, spit on, throw hot coffee at and beat the nonviolent protesters. The sequence is also brilliantly intercut with scenes showing the students' training for the protest, in which they were instructed to taunt, shove and berate each other. (The sequence is made more thrilling by the music – Shorty Long's “Function at the Junction.”) The film also makes good use of actual footage from civil rights protests, with police fire hoses, German Shepherds, beatings, the burned-out Freedom Bus.
I love that THE BUTLER shows how dangerous nonviolent protest was for the brave people who did it, and that Strong's script embraces many of the arguments – from a black perspective – about the struggle for black freedom. Daniels' intention is clear from the beginning, when he presents the powerful symbol of a pair of lynched men hanging from nooses. It's clear Daniels has no interest in presenting a Spielbergian paean to the Great White Liberator or a dutiful black servant. His film personifies, in the father-son conflict, longstanding disputes within the black community. Cecil believes change comes from the top, and that the presidents he serves are working to make things better for everyone. Louis believes change can only come through activism, and will endure beatings and sit in jail cells to achieve it.
Eugene Allen's life was about his work, the substance of which gets only perfunctory attention in THE BUTLER. We see Cecil polishing silver and shoes and setting an impeccable table, and occasionally a president asks his opinion about something. Robin Williams, looking for all the world like Truman, is actually Eisenhower. As Eisenhower orders troops sent to desegregate the schools in Little Rock, he asks Cecil whether his children go to “an all-colored school.” (The answer is yes, sir, they do.)
The presidential portrayals are a mixed bag, though most of them thankfully avoid pure caricature. John Cusack, an odd choice for Nixon, actually captures R.N.'s vocal mannerisms and haunted paranoia, first as vice president and later, as a disgraced, post-Watergate drunk. James Marsden is a too-short and non-philandering John F. Kennedy, and LBJ (Liev Schreiber) is shown addressing aides while sitting on the toilet, something he did in real life. (The movie's added touch is to put Lyndon's pet beagles at his feet.) Ford and Carter are skipped for some reason; Reagan (an unconvincing Alan Rickman) is uncommonly gracious to Cecil but holds stubbornly to his opposition to sanctions on apartheid South Africa. It is Nancy Reagan (a perfectly coiffed Jane Fonda, in a clever bit of ironic casting) who invites Cecil and Gloria to the state dinner that offers Cecil a different perspective. “Nothing seemed right after that,” the elderly Cecil recalls. His consciousness at last raised, Cecil demands long-overdue salary parity for the black White House staffers — who historically have earned less than their white counterparts — and after retiring, joins his son's anti-apartheid rally.
The movie's pacing is a bit phlegmatic, with intermittent periods of excitement and some meandering bits, particularly the bitter mutterings of Gloria, the bored, drunken wife who mocks Jackie Kennedy and has scant sympathy when the president is killed. (Maybe a happy spouse like Eugene's wife, Gladys, would have been too dull.) The momentum is hampered by the linearity of the narrative, a long march from 1926 to 2008, just after the election of Barack Obama. At certain points, I was silently ticking off how many presidents there were left to show.
Yet this movie about a servant is decidedly not bland. It's rich with personality and rife with controversy and challenge – Martin Luther King, for example, not just having a dream but denouncing the Vietnam War as immoral, the Black Panthers presented in all their ambiguity. These are arcane and even radical views you don't often encounter in mainstream Hollywood cinema. 3 out of 4 stars.