There’s a scene in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” where Martin Luther King Jr. is speaking with Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo), the Freedom Rider son of the film’s eponymous protagonist. Louis is ashamed that his father Cecil (Forest Whitaker) is a servant for a living, but Dr. King corrects him and says that the butler’s hard work ethic and dignity has a long history of slowly breaking down black stereotypes.
They’re “quietly subversive,” he says, which is a perfect label for “The Butler.” This loosely true story about a White House Butler who served through five administrations and 20 years is strongly melodramatic, but it views our nation’s most iconic racial history through a more critical, nuanced lens. Cecil’s complex persona goes against some of the themes depicted in modern race relations films, and it broadens Daniels’ scope to a film that is saccharine, suspenseful and silly.
It’s a fine line for any specifically “black” film to walk. We’ve come a long way from the days when Sidney Poitier was leading the charge in African American cinema, an actor who “The Butler” name drops directly. The Civil Rights era has been tread so many times that the genre itself has evolved to something of a post-racial state, even if the reality we live in hasn’t.
Movies that generalize too deeply about black persecution and dwell only on the tumultuous past neglect the future, and others still threaten to paint black people as saintly, whitewashed, bland or a mix of all three.
“The Butler” by its very nature could come under such racial fire. Forest Whitaker’s Cecil is a gleefully sunny, chipper and sophisticated servant groomed by Southern plantation owners to care for white folks. He is to remain invisible and silent even when he is in the room, to neither see nor hear anything.
Yet that’s only one side of Cecil’s personality, one that differs from his more casual home presence. But he so firmly believes in being an upstanding butler that being meek, quiet, obedient and faithful to white men almost by definition paints him as what could be called “a magical black man.” In his job, he embodies very little of the bravery or the rebellious spirit that defines such movies. And yet Cecil presents himself as a more realistic, ordinary, lived-in character than any one else made to stand for something.
Earlier this year, the Jackie Robinson biopic “42” advocated a similar trick; Robinson got his strength from simply staying quiet and strong, but it gave the baseball legend little to work with as a character.
Cecil has much more depth. His home life is chronicled with as much detail as the history lesson inside the White House, one that with a wink features Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schrieber, John Cusack and Alan Rickman as five presidents. We learn that Cecil’s wife Gloria, played with surprising resolve by none other than Oprah, is having an affair with their next door neighbor (Terrence Howard) and is an alcoholic.
Then there’s Cecil’s relationship with his son Louis, who jumps from attending rallies for Emmitt Till to Malcolm X speeches to Black Panther protests and an infamous Freedom Rider attack by the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. The movie looks on with uncertainty at the Black Power movement, as well as the definitive ‘70s culture that surrounded it, but because Cecil shows such vocal disdain, it drives a wrench through his bond with his son. Just like in the White House, it’s only when he remains respecting and faithful that things can improve.
Daniels isn’t afraid to depict all this with pulpy, melodramatic thrills. Anyone who has seen his earlier films “Precious” and “The Paperboy” knows that even opening this film with a rape and murder is par for the course. But unlike say “The Help,” which shoehorns in comedic set pieces into more solemn ones, Daniels is smoother at allowing frivolous conversation to coincide with talk of racial equality. Danny Strong’s screenplay plays like a who’s-who in the vein of “Forrest Gump,” but the pop culture references are an equally definitive part of the movement as any lynch mob scene.
Whitaker will be the one earning all the Oscar buzz for his portrayal of Cecil through the years, but shout-outs are due for Oyelowo and Cuba Gooding Jr. as a foul-mouthed butler. Their charm and growth keep this star-studded film in check, despite even including small cameos by Mariah Carey, Vanessa Redgrave, Minka Kelly and Jane Fonda.
“12 Years a Slave” or “Fruitvale Station” may prove to be the more racially significant movies of the year, but “The Butler” is an admirable film that will calmly yet firmly impact the way people think about race.