Let’s take a moment to talk about Django Unchained and 42. One of them was a smash hit that went on to multiple Oscar nominations and even a few wins. The other one landed with such a lukewarm response that it’s already been largely forgotten only five months after release.
Both of these films dealt heavily with the racial injustice of America’s past, but in very different ways. Django, for example, was set in the antebellum south, which is a time and culture that tends to be conspicuously glossed over in most history books. Compare that to 42, which was set in the Civil Rights Movement. Never mind that the Civil Rights Movement has already been the subject of countless books, movies, TV specials, documentaries, etc. Every year, we set aside the entire month of February to tell stories about the Civil Rights Movement. Americans have been raised from an early age to honor the legacies of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, Emmett Till, etc. I personally remember singing with my classmates about Martin Luther King back in the first grade. We’ve even got his name on major streets across the country, for God’s sake!
That brings me to something else about 42: It was based on Jackie Robinson. I already knew that he was a phenomenal baseball player who became a crucial figure for racial equality, and 42 taught me absolutely nothing else about him. The film was so focused on celebrating the legend (which has already been done, ad infinitum) that it didn’t put enough time toward portraying the man behind the legend. Django never bothered with any of that emotional baggage, most likely because the characters involved were entirely Tarantino’s creations.
But here’s the most crucial point about the two movies — I said it in my review of 42, and I think it merits elaboration — There is no room for debate on the issue of segregation. NONE. You’re either an evil bastard who thinks that the black man should be beaten and lynched at the white man’s leisure, or you’re a right-minded person who thinks that both ethnicities should live on equal footing. There is no middle ground here.
Django was absolutely brilliant in that it embraced this morality, delivering an unambiguously good hero striking down unforgivably evil villains in a pulp western style. Compare that to 42, which played the exact same binary morality totally straight. As a result, the film tried to deliver compelling drama with two-dimensional characters, and it flat didn’t work.
To be clear, I’m not against celebrating the Civil Rights Movement and all the icons that rose from it. Far from it. If we’re ever going to transcend the bigotry and racial violence of our nation’s past, then we must never forget how prevalent and horrible it once was. That said, I think that this era makes for poor cinema. How could any decent drama or entertainment come from a subject that’s been done so thoroughly to death? There’s no thematic relevance to a film with nothing more to say than “segregation was bad;” we already know that!
Yet in spite of this, it seems that the market has become saturated with lowest-common-denominator stories about the triumph over racial inequality. This is probably due to Obama’s election, the emerging power of the African-American demographic, the 50-year anniversary of Martin Luther King’s iconic speech, or any combination of the above.
All of this to say that I had very low expectations for Lee Daniels’ The Butler (sadly, the director’s name must be included on account of some penny-ante lawsuit) which promised to be nothing but more of the same. So imagine my shock to find that the movie found some new angles to explore.
This film is very loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, who served as a White House butler from 1952 until 1986. Thirty-four years in the White House, folks. From Truman to Reagan, with another six presidential administrations between them. Just think of all the history that Allen must have been party to. All the secrets he kept, all the conversations he heard. This guy literally had access to all the dirtiest laundry in our nation’s capital.
Doesn’t he sound like a fascinating subject for a film? Well, too bad. This movie is about Cecil Gaines, a fictional character inspired by Allen’s life, played by Forest Whitaker.
Still, Cecil does make for an interesting character. He still serves as a loyal housekeeper through several presidencies, though he starts midway through Eisenhower instead of Truman’s waning years. He still bears witness to plenty of historical events, though they all seem to focus on the Civil Rights Movement. We’ll get back to that.
As far as this film is concerned, the main thrust of Cecil’s character is in his apolitical nature. Cecil overhears countless discussions about racial policy and all the violence directed toward his people, yet he wills himself to say nothing. He’s spent his entire life serving white folk who could (and do) call him a nigger to his face, yet he just smiles and carries on. He feels a tremendous amount of pain, and he carries some deep scars from his childhood on a cotton farm, yet he carries on with his job and does it exceptionally well. He has — as Jackie Robinson himself might put it — “the guts not to fight back.”
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Cecil’s eldest son. Louis Gaines (played by David Oyelowo) graduates high school to take part in many famous protests and demonstrations. For example, he was one of the infamous Freedom Riders, eventually riding on the very bus that got attacked and burned down by the KKK in 1961. Louis also shared a prison cell with Martin Luther King Jr. and was an early member of the Black Panther Party.
Oh, and do I even need to mention that Louis is completely fictional? As if any one person could be in so many landmark events at once.
Anyway, the film is unique in that it doesn’t focus on the standard “black people vs. whitey” conflict. Instead, the movie is centered on these two clashing approaches toward the issue of racial equality. One of them decides to rise up, proclaiming to all the world that he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore. The other one chooses to turn the other cheek, refusing to let his temper get the better of him no matter how many times he’s baited to do so. Louis and his compatriots spread ripples throughout the country, affecting public opinion by showing the disasters that will inevitably happen if segregation is allowed to continue. Cecil, however, gets to affect the country by showing kindness and compassion to those who could shoot him in the head — or worse — with no repercussions.
Cecil thinks that Louis is a fool, throwing away his education to live in one prison after another until he finally gets lynched. Meanwhile, Louis thinks that his dad is an Uncle Tom who disgraces the black community by bowing and scraping to the white man. They really do love and care for each other, but the two men are so stubbornly set in their own violently opposing viewpoints that they go for years without speaking to each other. Yet the film never comes down on one side or the other, and actually shows how the Civil Rights Movement needed black people who could play both roles.
It’s a fascinating conflict, and a refreshingly novel way to explore the Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately, the entire film was built around racial tension, and that comes back to bite the movie in a big way. By the end of the second act, the Movement is more or less over and our main father/son pairing go for years without talking. As a result, the film is completely rudderless through its third act, drifting through several montages and time jumps until the credits finally roll. The film visibly struggles for any attempt at making “deep” racial commentary, but it’s only so much padding.
And why did the film pad out its third act to such a degree? Because we had to show Cecil’s excitement over Barack Obama’s election. That was completely pointless. Of course Lee Daniels has nothing new or intelligent to say about the historical significance of a president who’s still in office. I don’t know why Daniels thought to present Obama as an icon of racial equality while most grade-schoolers are old enough to remember a time before our first black president. We don’t need such a blunt reminder of what it means for America to elect a black president, any more than we need to be reminded about the morals of racial equality. We already know.
Though I appreciate the film’s creative father/son angle, and I respect the film’s good intentions, there are times when this film goes way too far. No joke, the film opens with the image of two black men swinging from nooses while an American flag waves in the background, and a Martin Luther King quotation is superimposed in the corner. When the film ends, it offers a dedication to all those who fought and died for racial equality in the Civil Rights Movement. I should also add that Daniels shows us Jackie Onassis Kennedy while she’s still covered in her husband’s blood, and he presents quite a few scenes of racial violence without flinching. Say what you will about Daniels, but there’s no denying he’s got balls.
Even so, the overwhelmingly preachy approach toward racial equality gets very old very fast. And given the subject matter, it’s extremely myopic as well. Remember, this movie is about a man who spent over three goddamned decades working in the White House. Just think about all the insider information he would’ve gained after all that time.
For instance, Gaines informs us that the United States president lives in the White House right up until the next president is sworn in. This means that the White House staff only has two hours to move the old one out and the new one in. Why couldn’t we learn more stuff like that?
(Side note: Come to think of it, a dramatization of what goes on in the White House between presidents — filmed in real time — could potentially make for a great movie. Get on that, Hollywood!)
Similarly, just imagine all the intimate moments and secrets that Cecil would’ve been party to. The film certainly explores that angle, I grant you, but it’s seldom done in a way that humanizes our former commanders in chief. Instead, it’s usually done in such a way as to make the presidents look comical. I suspect that Daniels was knocking the older presidents down a peg to make Obama look that much better by comparison, but I’m done harping about that.
Last but not least, Cecil was there through the Space Race. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The Iran Hostage Crisis. Three Mile Island. This man served in the White House through almost every lyric of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and the film ignores all of that entirely in favor of Civil Rights? No, there had to be a better way. The issue of racial equality was always going to be present, given the nature of the story, but the film could potentially have explored a huge cultural event from a new and unexpected angle while tying it to Civil Rights in a subtle way.
I’ll show you what I mean: In the movie, there’s a scene in which Louis is talking with his little brother (Charles, played as a teenager by Elijah Kelley). Charles wants to enlist and go to Vietnam, but Louis is dead set against it. Charles retorts that Louis is fighting against his country, so now he wants to go and fight for his country. That was brilliant. That’s a fascinating parallel with all manner of clever thematic possibilities to explore. I just wish the film could have elaborated on that idea, or presented others like it. Maybe it would’ve helped if Charles had been treated as a character in his own right instead of a disposable comic relief who only gets one great moment before dying offscreen. And no, there was no reason for that: The character is fictional, so the filmmakers could’ve done anything with him.
Another example: Late in the movie, we watch as President Reagan threatens to veto any bill that deals with Apartheid. The movie only spends two minutes on the subject, so it’s hard to read Reagan’s logic as anything but racist. In real life, however, Reagan vetoed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 because he thought that it was watered-down and would only hurt the black people of South Africa.
This right here is why slice-of-life films (like Lincoln) are inherently better than cradle-to-grave films (like The Iron Lady). If this movie had just focused on this isolated stretch of time, we could have gone into the intricate ambiguities of Apartheid, Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, and America’s involvement (or lack thereof) in both. We could have seen all of this through the eyes of a man who served half a dozen presidents and lived through some of the worst racial tension in our nation’s history. We could still have learned about Cecil’s estranged son and their eventual reconciliation, and it wouldn’t have been any less sweet.
But instead, it’s all swept under the rug to make room for so much more stuff that we didn’t need.
Also, it bears mentioning that my idea would have needed a completely different actor to play Reagan. Seriously, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan? Whose bright idea was that?! Don’t get me wrong, Rickman is a great actor, but there’s no way someone so inextricably British could possibly play an iconic Hollywood cowboy. That casting was just all manner of stupid.
Come to think of it, the presidents in this movie were all cast quite poorly. Robin Williams and James Marsden were respectively cast as Eisenhower and JFK, and both admittedly do passable jobs until they open their mouths. Liev Shreiber plays LBJ as a total clown, and I’m not sure if that was the right way to go. There’s also John Cusack in the role of Richard Nixon, which turns out to be every bit as awful as it sounds.
All of these actors join Jane Fonda (playing Nancy Reagan) and Vanessa Redgrave (playing the woman who raised Cecil) as so much sauce for Academy voters. All of these actors only get three or four minutes of screen time apiece, but that’s of course entirely beside the point. They might as well have listed Alex Pettyfer among the cast; he only has one scene and he still gets just as much screen time as any of the others listed.
Naturally, the film’s African-American cast is much more prominent. Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. both get a significant amount of screen time as Cecil’s coworkers, though neither of them leave much of an impression. Though in Gooding’s case, I suppose that being a non-entity is an improvement. There’s also Terrence Howard, who makes a total ass of himself as a character who barely affects the film in any way.
David Oyelowo does a fine job playing Louis, though he got stuck with some awful makeup jobs trying to age him up and down. In one particular scene, he’s wearing a mustache so egregiously fake that I kept waiting for it to fall off. Conversely, I was rather shocked to find that Mariah Carey is in this movie, playing Cecil’s mother. It’s just a cameo role, and she doesn’t do much, but she still did a great job of making herself unrecognizable.
With all of that aside, we come to Oprah. Yes, Daniels got his old Precious exec-producer to play a prominent role as Cecil’s wife. I was honestly quite skeptical that such an icon as Oprah Winfrey could disappear into a role — and she didn’t — but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Gloria is presented as a woman whose deep love for her husband is constantly at odds with her unhappiness about life. She’s upset that Cecil spends more time at the White House than his own house, and she serves as a persistent reminder that he has responsibilities as a father and husband as well. Plus, it couldn’t have been easy to have a husband who works in Jackie Kennedy’s house, back when the First Lady was the envy of every woman in America.
She lashes out, she raises her tone, she drinks and smokes to excess, but it’s clear that everytthing Gloria does and all the pain she feels is out of love for her family. Oprah walks a lot of fine lines with this role, and I’m genuinely impressed that such a famously glamorous woman was willing to grunge herself down to the degree that she does in this movie.
As for Forest Whitaker… really, what more do I need to say? He’s Forest Goddamned Whitaker and he was given a great role to play with. Of course he’s awesome.
Getting down to the final verdict, I’m still not completely sure whether Lee Daniels’ The Butler can be labelled as “good.” The core trio of Whitaker, Winfrey, and Oyelowo all turn in fine work, but the rest of the cast is hit-and-miss. The central father/son exploration of the Civil Rights Movement is good stuff, but it’s surrounded by so much padding that drags down the third act. The film had some incredible real-life source material to draw from, only to throw all of that potential away and just make everything up instead.
In the end, I think it best if I give this film the same verdict that I gave to Lawless last year: It’s a palate cleanser. The film isn’t good enough to be an Oscar contender — not by a long shot — but it works as a nice little appetizer for the Oscar season nonetheless. The film is good enough for a rental, though I wouldn’t recommend seeing it on the big screen. Though statistically speaking, you probably have already.