Lee Daniels’ The Butler covers a lot of ground in 2 hours. It tackles all sorts of racial issues and passes along president after president as if operating a conveyer belt. It tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a black man in a divided America as he grows from being a cotton-picking slave to one of The White House’s most cherished servants. His story is quite remarkable, and The Butler tells it convincingly and confidently, but at the end of it all it cannot run away from the fact that everything that happens around Cecil turns out to be infinitely more interesting than Cecil himself.
He is a dull man, bound by the shackles of routine and cliche. No doubt his story here is inspired by the story of Eugene Allen — whose life must’ve been a hundred times more eventful and considerably less predictable — but his metamorphosis from Eugene to Cecil undergoes some sort of degeneration process so that by the time Cecil fulfils his duty as head butler, we are applauding the movie’s achievements, not his own.
To be sure, The Butler has many achievements. Much praise must be given to the movie’s art department, production design, and costume and makeup teams. The plot spans two decades, with brief stopovers in the 1920s and 2008. That’s a lot of work in terms of set design, costume design, props mastering, and so on. We see a number of American presidents march in and out of The White House as if they were the guests and Cecil was the resident; each of them is clothed, styled, and brushed over to resemble their respective namesakes. Out of all, Alan Rickman as the aged Ronald Reagan strikes the ball the hardest.
It’s always customary that movies like The Butler — where historical figures are represented by well known actors — cater to its audience. Many viewers will walk in to this movie excited to see past presidents and Martin Luther King Jr. and other men and women portrayed on screen. There’s always nostalgia in witnessing such transformations. It’s this desire that makes the biopic so popular. We remember Will Smith as Ali because he resembled Ali. We remember Foxx as Charles because he resembled Charles. To a lesser extent, we will remember the array of cameos in The Butler for being cameos of important people. I say “to a lesser extent” only because there are so many faces to take in.
It’s also customary in movies like this for the patriarch of the family to have burnt bridges to his sons. Cecil becomes so obsessed and devoted to his job that he neglects his family and stands idle as his wife (Oprah Winfrey) succumbs to alcohol and adultery and his eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) breaks barriers and joins the infamous Black Panthers. All these events are perfunctory and expected, but what’s even more disappointing is the banality with which The Butler’s screenplay — written by Danny Strong — handles them. There is hardly a moment of shock and surprise because we’ve all been waiting for these moments to arrive. And then when they do, they do nothing to compensate for their lacklustre entrances. Romances are formed. Friendships are cemented. People die. History takes its course. Love is lost and then found again.
I am not displeased by The Butler. It is a solid movie with well crafted performances. I, for one, had no idea that Oprah Winfrey could act, yet here she is, playing a role that demands considerably more than the others. Ultimately though, it’s everything else that shines through. The design, the colour palettes, the supporting characters, the cameos. The America constructed in this movie is so rich in detail and so vigorous in its existence that it undercuts Cecil and his family. I struggle to comprehend Cecil’s fierce devotion to his job. I struggle to empathise with his trials. The world moving around you will always be more fascinating than the world that you yourself possess.
Best Moment | I personally enjoyed seeing all the presidents coming and going. After all, I suspect that that was the movie’s intent.
Worst Moment | A scene in 2008 involving Cecil and his wife in the kitchen. Camp acting that almost became comical.