To brush up on my history and acquire a viewing for my “Race, Class and Gender in American Cinema” class, I ventured to a late viewing of Lee Daniels’ The Butler expecting to be carried away by the Oscar-hype train. Sadly, I was rejected at the station.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler follows Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker), a black man from the south, who was adopted into a house servitude after his father was killed in cold blood. A few years pass until he find his way to Washington DC, gets a job at a luxurious hotel then hired onto the butler staff at the White House when President Eisenhower is in office. We follow him and his family through the Civil Rights movement happening throughout the country. Cecil’s wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), is a somewhat unstable drinker dealing with her two boys. The eldest, Louis (David Oyelowo), gets involved early in his adulthood in the Civil Rights sit-in protests headed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while in college. Cecil struggles in maintaining his fly-on-the-wall approach of servitude while in the White House while being concerned for the well-being of Louis. Along with an all-star cast who plays the Presidents like Robin Williams, John Cusack, and Alan Rickman truly bring refreshing portrayals.
As you maybe can tell from my short summary, it’s a quick flight through a specific time period in American history. Can you think of another recent film that sounds like? Well, I though of Forrest Gump. It’s easy to see that Cecil played the part of Forrest, an innocent subjective viewpoint for the audience. While his son Louis plays the part of Jenny, someone who got caught up by the times and social movements. It’s similar in structure even if the relationship between the two aren’t identical. The Butler isn’t as funny, entertaining or as comedic black as Forrest Gump, it’s very comparable in structure and sometimes tone. Also, both paint this section of history in a rose-colored and cartoonish fashion.
Now, even though the premise and execution is passable, I’m not sure about a few things that the script and production delivered. I think Forrest Whitaker and Oprah did excellent in their respective roles. Even though Oprah’s character didn’t have much to do in the script as she was just played the woman behind the man, she at least played it believable. I enjoyed the aforementioned cameos of the Presidents by their actors but I never could get past the actors who were playing them. Not that I was looking for them to match Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln, but something close would have been nice.
Also, the first half really mad me hate white people. A lot. Rightfully they showed the awful atrocities that the major mindset that the country held at the time, but no one was there to speak up for the few white people that were in support of the Civil Rights. There might have been one or two and President Kennedy. Also, for the most part, it was a one-sided Democratic party commercial; at least what I found from the depictions of the Commander-In-Chief. Eisenhower, a Republican President, might have been the only Republican President given proper respect. Maybe the other Republican Presidents deserved the wrong side of their face pictured (like Nixon) but it showed a strong bias against other Conservatives.
I wouldn’t be surprised if The Butler were up for many awards during awards season. It hits that sweet spot that the Oscar voters love as the last few winners had. And the A-list cast doesn’t hurt its chances either. For me, it was too littered with political biases and a too fictional look at a turning point of our country that deserved more realism.