There are moments in “The Butler” – excuse me, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” – that make you cringe a little because they’re so on the nose.
And yet I walked away from Daniels’ film deeply moved. As obvious as this film can be in its messages – bigotry and racism: bad – it still touches on moments of history from the recent past that need to be recalled, over and over.
It’s too easy to forget how recently the events of this film occurred, given that the story starts in the 1920s but focuses mainly on years between the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s and the Reagan years of the 1980s. It’s also easy, as the U.S. Supreme Court did recently, to assume that things have changed drastically in our attitudes toward race in the interim.
But Daniels’ earnest and passionate film keeps forcing you to look at the story from another angle. Where “The Help” (which was set in 1963 Mississippi) told that story of painful but necessary social change through the eyes of a white character, “The Butler” finds a more relevant witness to history.
Cecil Gaines, as played by Forest Whitaker, is a butler who comes to the White House from the Deep South. Raised on a cotton plantation, he saw his mother raped by the plantation owner’s son, who then shot Cecil’s father when he objected. Moved indoors to wait on the owner (Vanessa Redgrave), young Cecil learns to serve, then more formally learns his trade working at a hotel in the city. After finding his way to a butler post at the top hotel in Washington, D.C., he is noticed by someone from the White House, vetted and hired.
It’s a highly prestigious position, expected to be unseen and unhearing as the fate of the world is decided by the people they serve. For Cecil, who has a wife and two children, it’s a position of respect that comes as a kind of sacred trust.
But even as he joins the Eisenhower-era White House (with Robin Williams improbably cast, playing Ike as a low-key Midwesterner who seems slightly tranquilized), racial politics are reaching the headlines. Cecil finds himself acting as a sounding-board for Eisenhower, even as he ponders the complicated politics of who and where he is.
This review continues on my website.