butler

I’m pressed to think of a 2013 film I felt more conflicted about than LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER.

The film is an interesting portrait of race in America through the 20th Century. We watch moment after moment of The American Civil Rights Movement unfold, and relay all of it back to a White House butler named Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). Since Cecil holds his job for over thirty years, he is the fly on the wall for president after president. He is witness to their demeanour and decisions, all of which will directly affect him and millions of other black Americans.

On the one hand, the story of The Gaines Family is fascinating. There’s an engaging contradiction with a son involved with The Freedom Writers while his father works as house staff at The White House. It takes the complexed nature of the movement (passive demonstration giving way to active resistance), and ups the ante that much more since Cecil is in some ways embodying a part of Black America’s history that they are working to outrun. When the two are mixed together, we see how the contrasting attitudes to both protest and the movement in general affected both the community and individual families.

However, because the film is incapable of handling the White House side of the story with any grace, the entire film feels handcuffed. The events that shaped this chapter in American history were moulded by Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan. So of course, all of those very famous men need to be represented within the movie – and that’s where things go wrong. Every one of them feel like stunt casting (perhaps at its worst when John Cusack plays Nixon), so every interaction with one of these commanders in chief is a cartoon. Did looking upon the face of his black butler give Reagan pause when deciding how to respond to Apartheid? Maybe. Does listening to Alan Rickman do his best Reagan-whisper make us feel the gravity of that moment? Hell no.

I guess what I’m saying is that the white people in this film sure do an amazing job of mucking up an important, and otherwise well-made, film for, by, and about black people.

I’d never go so far as to say that the film is a complete write-off, because what happens with The Gaines’ is so moving and so well-crafted. It’s just that everytime we find ourselves interacting with a politician or an aide at The White House, all of that moving and well-crafted goodwill is almost squandered.

What I would go so far as to say is that this film is overshadowed. There has been an awful lot of things going on in America lately that underline the importance of revisiting these chapters in its history and getting to the heart of race relations. However, in 2013 there were two films that tackled the subject so much better than LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER did, and in their wake, this at-times-hammy effort is found wanting.