Danny Strong very loosely adapted Lee Daniels’ The Butler from a 2008 Washington Post article by Wil Haygood, detailing the life of Eugene Allen, a black butler who served at the White House for three decades. In the film, Allen is fictionalized as Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), whose career as a White House butler, beginning with Eisenhower, is charted through flashbacks and voiceover and framed around a meeting he waits to have with President Obama. In actuality, the film is about two lives, that of Cecil and that of his son, Louis (David Oyelowo), an equal-rights and, later, black-power advocate who, as an adult, runs for state office. Daniels plays up their generational friction throughout, most dynamically in a montage, soundtracked by Shorty Long’s infectious “Function at the Junction,” wherein glimmering visions of Cecil preparing and serving at a swanky White House dinner party are juxtaposed with Louis and his friends getting walloped during a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter.
The sequence strikes at the heart of Cecil and Louis’s philosophical quarrel: to be a servant in a world of unimaginable power and luxury or to be a leader against racism in an unforgiving, deadly terrain, two occasionally opposing visions of what defines progress and work in the black community. Witnessing his father’s (David Banner) sudden execution, Cecil sees how just one word, in a slightly elevated tone, can work as justification for your murder, and is then almost immediately imparted with a sense that his safety is guaranteed by ensuring the comfort of white people. Cecil’s livelihood is in entertaining people, keeping them at ease, whereas Louis, spared the horrors of his father’s youth, passionately embraces the spirit of the civil rights movement and aggressively tries to push people out of complacency. In fact, “aggressive” is a good way to describe the emotional and aesthetic timbre of Daniels’s previous films, most notoriously Precious. With The Butler, the filmmaker’s often histrionic artistry is reined in quite a bit, and at first glance, it’s seemingly the most congenial film Daniels has made to date, but there’s a bitterness and frustration underlying Cecil’s life that the director consistently keeps in clear sight.
It’s hard to think of a recent film that’s at once so familiar and welcoming in its overarching story of hard-won triumph and yet so radical and nuanced in form. At one point, a bus of Freedom Riders, Louis among them, is stopped and overtaken by the Ku Klux Klan, a member of which tosses a Molotov cocktail into the vehicle. Another director would have stayed outside with the bigots and let our blood build to a boil, but Daniels keeps us in the rushing terror, boxed in by barking German Shepherds and white supremacists. There are similar sequences involving Louis, including a glimpse at the prep for the sit-in, where the director clearly bares his teeth, but it’s never at the expense of belittling Cecil’s way of life or cheapening his contribution to civil rights. Daniels continuously reminds us that the black men and women who worked within the racist system were pushing toward equality as much as those who (more than justifiably) didn’t, in a more covert manner. The film’s defining moment is when Louis, discussing plans with other activists, vocally disrespects his father’s profession and a wiser colleague reminds him that Cecil is really a subversive.
Daniels indeed produces a strange and antic melodrama out of Cecil’s life, his story beginning brutally with the (unseen) rape of his mother (Mariah Carey) and his father’s murder by their employer, Westfall (Alex Pettyfer). It’s Westfall’s grandmother (Vanessa Redgrave) who teaches Cecil how to set tables, serve, and take care of her home, but it’s the kindness of a shop-keep, Maynard (Clarence Williams III), that sets the course for his life. Ultimately, Cecil’s private life is mainly defined by his bumpy relationship with his boozing, Faye Adams-loving wife, Gloria, played by a phenomenal Oprah Winfrey. She brings the ache of age and the pain of a compromised life out of her character with as little as a disinterested glare toward her man on the side (Terrence Howard). When Gloria is entertaining, however, Winfrey brings out her own manic social energy, and she’s electrifying. And while at work, Cecil is surrounded not only by world leaders, but also by an array of co-workers and close friends, brought to varied, vivid life by Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, and Colman Domingo, and the busy atmosphere and whirl of work talk is reminiscent of a Robert Altman film.
Daniels places an interesting emphasis on the nature of performance, most potently in Cecil, who, in the wake of his origins, sees entertaining, like acting, as a form of survival. The director’s ability to lead his actors into unbridled areas of themselves has been a constant in his career, and The Butler feels unleashed from its narrative partially because of its dazzling cast. This goes especially for his depiction of the U.S. presidents Cecil served under, among them a troll-like LBJ played by Liev Schreiber and a pretty straightforward JFK played by James Marsden. All the “presidential” actors lean on careful, focused caricature rather than historical or physical accuracy, and the results are discombobulating, in the best sense of the word. John Cusack’s Nixon starts off as a goofy narc, but quickly hardens into an unsettling, paranoid bigot, out-creeping Anthony Hopkins with only a handful of scenes, and Robin Williams, with even less screen time, gives Eisenhower the graceful air of vast wisdom. Through these performances, period detail, and rowdy yet exact camerawork, Daniels illustrates the surrealism of Cecil’s station in life, his defenses reverberating in the film’s rambunctious aesthetic, as if a response to the blunt political atmosphere that perpetually frames the man’s life. Toward the end of the film, Alan Rickman’s Reagan coldly insists that he will veto any sanctions against South Africa for Apartheid as Cecil works in the background, and in response to the Kennedy assassination, the filmmakers offer two deeply unnerving images: Cecil, quivering, muttering, “They blew his head off,” and Jackie Onassis (Minka Kelly), isolated in the White House, her husband’s blood settling into the fibers of her coat.
The Butler concludes amid the 2008 presidential election, simply and joyously, if also just a bit on the nose. On the surface, Daniels tells a stock tale about creating and surviving the civil rights movement, but the director wrenches the tired sentimentalism and past-tense detachment that defines similar projects apart with an experiential urgency, part of what is quickly becoming an inimitable style. Following The Paperboy, a surprisingly effective hit of tawdriness, Daniels here cleverly and quietly pushes his talent for hashing out visceral, violent emotions into unexpected dramatic terrain, creating an alluringly anxious film out of a life of slowly decaying compliance. That’s exactly what makes the film’s final moment, in which Cecil snaps at a White House staffer for presuming to tell him where the oval office is, so immensely satisfying. After biting his tongue for so long, Cecil discards his carapace, if only to tell someone that he knows what he’s doing.