Eugene Allen’s story is made for the movies. A man who worked at the White House for over thirty years, he interacted with a succession of Presidents as he rose to the rank of Maitre d’Hotel, retiring during the Reagan Administration. This is how Mr. Allen’s life was described in a Washington Post article written just as President Obama was about to win his first election. It’s a fascinating idea, that a black man could bear witness to the inner turmoil of so many powerful white men as racial tensions rose and fell through the 20th century. Like I said, it’s made for the movies.
In Danny Strong’s adaptation of Mr. Allen’s life, Eugene becomes Cecil Gaines. The basic narrative is essentially kept intact: Cecil gets hired as a White House butler and does indeed remain in service until partway through the Reagan Administration. Through his eyes, and those of his fellow butlers, we meet a succession of Presidents and First Ladies.
The film’s structure follows a simple formula: racial events happen on the streets, the butlers watch news of the events on the television in their workspace, then serve the President of the day, who is also reacting to the same TV footage. A clever idea: we watch the butlers watching the Presidents watching the news… in a series of layers of perspective serving as the film’s center, and tidily introducing the notion that even the President is small when compared to the power of the common man and woman (something the people of Egypt know very well right now). Unfortunately, the actors playing various Presidents and First Ladies aren’t given time to do much more than mimic their well-known mannerisms and perceived character traits. So John Cusack is instantly seedy when he first appears as an as-yet-unelected Richard Nixon. James Marsden is all smiles and charm as John F. Kennedy, etc.
It is an effective way to make audience members comfortable with the subject matter, but also the first way that Danny Strong turns Eugene Allen’s life into a dry history lesson.
The second way involves how Strong and Daniels tackle history itself. Strong gives Cecil a son named Louis who grows up and is drawn to the emerging underground racial-justice movements. He perceives his father as a “house nigger,” seeing the job of White House butler as completely opposite to the concept of black civil rights. Louis then moves through the significant moments in America’s civil rights history in a Forrest Gump-style plot, participating in sit-ins at diners, the Freedom Rides, the fight for voter registration, the rise of the Black Panthers. Louis provides Lee Daniels with a handy way to recreate historical events and a narrative device to link them to Cecil. But handy isn’t always synonymous with good.
It’s surprising to me, considering that we are talking about Lee Daniels here, the man who so forcefully captured the despair and darkness of abuse in Precious, and who was so raunchy in creating The Paperboy, but… The Butler is tame. There are a few early moments that suggest Daniels is going to tackle history head on: a subtle vileness in Vanessa Redgrave’s handful of lines at the film’s beginning as an old plantation owner, the framing of lynched black men as teenage Cecil roams the South looking for a way out. But as soon as the film moves into the specific history it aims to tackle, any determination on Daniels’ part to be uncompromising is lost to the art of making everything easy to digest.
At first glance it seems Daniels is trying; the burning of a Freedom Ride bus by a KKK mob, for instance, begins terrifyingly with a sense of being trapped, but as soon as it's time for the violence to start the scene dissolves into a slow-motion Molotov cocktail being thrown, a brief scene of people running, and then we cut to a newspaper picture of the burned-out bus. Or when Louis announces that he and his girlfriend are going to start “fighting back,” we are told that “they put her in the hospital.” Although it sounds bad, only a short time later her character looks perfectly unharmed and unfazed. In fact, the worst sign of violence on any of the main characters is a black eye. It feels like Lee Daniels wanted to cover all the bases without risking his audience’s sensibilities. And Daniels is the last filmmaker from whom I ever expected to feel that.
Ultimately though, the biggest problem with The Butler’s “Civil Rights History 101” feel is how it leaves Cecil, and thus Eugene, out in the cold. Forest Whitaker anchors the film in a solid turn as Cecil, but due to the structure he is given virtually nothing to do. His character, and that of his son Louis, exist simply as constructs for American History to bounce off of. They are parallel Forrest Gumps, and because of that the final section of the film, Cecil’s home life, becomes dead weight.
Oprah Winfrey plays Cecil’s wife Gloria and serves as a connection between him and Louis when they aren't seeing eye to eye. But without the sense of either Cecil or Louis as a real person, her position is horribly compromised. The Cecil and Gloria section is sentimental and hampered by an overbearing score. Still, the very presence of Oprah Winfrey serves as an interesting bit of casting… how better to remind the viewer that times have changed then by casting the oft-declared “most powerful woman in America” in such a role? There is a fascinating supper scene where Louis slags Sidney Poitier and his success because he feels Poitier acts as a white man’s fantasy of what a black person could be. Oprah’s presence serves as the other side of that coin, as she certainly never compromised herself for anyone.
And for what it's worth, Oprah's character is the only part of this film that feels like Lee Daniels. There are moments of insane campiness to Oprah's performance that touch on the sublime, if you're a Daniels fan; little things like a scene where she is putting on lipstick for no reason, or an awesome disco outfit she wears while dancing around her living room. Some of Oprah's scenes seem to exist outside of the rest of the film, in a weird vacuum of style, they are so technically out of place.
With Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom right around the corner, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is one of the early entries in what promises to be a banner season for race in film. I just wish that more had been done to let us get to know Mr. Allen. Sometimes you can indeed capture the greatest moments in history by telling the story of one man. But if you cannot capture the man first, the history around him falls flat. And that is what happened to Mr. Allen’s story here.