Director Lee Daniels’ overplays his hand early in The Butler. We watch an opening scene which sees its main character as a young boy working with his parents in a cotton field. A nasty white man walks up and grabs his mother, forcing her into a nearby shed where, presumably, she is raped. Moments later, the boy challenges his father: what are you going to do? When the father confronts the white man, he is shot dead on the spot. The screen cuts to black and that pesky phrase pops up — “Inspired by true events” – which might as well read as “brace yourself for emotional pandering.” The Butler is indeed inspired by things that actually happened, but like this opening scene, history is hewn into melodrama, and the film’s emphatic emotionalism undercuts pertinent themes.
The Butler follows the life of Cecil Gains (Forest Whitaker), who, after the death of his father, is taken into the plantation house where he learns the butler trade. Cecil eventually leaves the home and gets a job at hotel. His quiet, humble demeanor, impeccable manners and decorum win him a spot in Washington’s Excelsior Hotel. His reputation there eventually sends him to the White House, where he works for every administration from Eisenhower to Reagan. Along the way, Cecil marries Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and they have two children.
The meat of The Butler comes during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Cutting between Cecil’s time in the White House, overhearing debates about how to handle the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, and the exploits of Cecil’s eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) who has joined the movement, The Butler retells the history of Civil Rights from a political and personal perspective, placing Whitaker’s Cecil in the middle. The resulting drama presents an intriguing, multi-faceted view into multi-generational African-American attitudes towards Civil Rights.
Unfortunately for Daniels’ film, though, there is something unconvincing about how clear this dichotomy between the personal and the historic is represented on screen. Louis manages to find his way, Forest Gump-like, into every significant moment of the Civil Rights movement. That allows Daniels to hit key points of his historical retelling, but as a narrative technique, it feels forced and strained. More satisfying are the candid domestic scenes involving Cecil, Gloria and their circle of friends. Here the mood is sweet and saccharine, but the humor and emotion sincere and effective. It is a reminder that most African-Americans weren’t standing on the front lines of history during this critical American moment, but they nevertheless experienced the suffering and resilience that led to triumph.