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Senior Correspondent

‘The Butler’: Civil Rights and Servile Behavior

‘The Butler’: Civil Rights and Servile Behavior

I’m not a huge fan of Lee Daniels (“Precious,” “The Paperboy”) or of his new film “The Butler.”

But I think I understand what he’s trying to do with this multi-decade story about a poor black man from the South who becomes a member of the White House staff, serving presidents and eavesdropping on America’s movers and shakers.

And I think he got the job done.

One of the drawbacks of better race relations in this country (which is not to say that everything’s fine; check out the Missouri State Fair rodeo clown controversy) is that we now have a generation of young black people who want nothing to do with America’s troubled racial past.

They are embarrassed by the very mention of slavery and tend to take for granted the civil rights they enjoy, with little appreciation of the generation of activists whose sacrifices made those advancements possible.

“The Butler,” I think, is aimed directly at this indifferent audience and seems to have been fashioned specifically to bring them up to speed, to force them to confront  the bad old days of their grandparents.

It’s not a particularly artful film (despite a couple of fine performances) and is frequently downright clumsy. But it succeeds in bringing to life the arc of 20th century African American history in an accessible and dramatic manner.

Inspired by the life of Eugene Allen (1919-2010) — who worked for 34 years in the White House, rising through the ranks to become maître d’hotel (top butler) — Danny Strong’s screenplay is the fictional story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker).

Early on Strong and Daniels lay things on with a trowel. One of the film’s first images is of two black men dangling from nooses. Then we’re back in the 1920s in a Southern cotton field where young Cecil witnesses his mother (Mariah Carey) being sexually abused by the landowner’s swaggering son. When her husband objects to this outrage, he is shot dead.

Shades of “Mandingo.”

The lady of the plantation (Vanessa Redgrave, the first of an endless stream of big-name actors making cameo appearances) takes pity on young Cecil and declares she’ll make him a “house nigger.” Under her training he becomes an ideal servant, finally taking off on his own to launch a career first at a Southern hotel, then at one in Washington D.C.  That’s where he’s spotted and invited to work at the White House.

“The Butler” attempts to balance Cecil’s private life against the era’s burning social issues. Much of the tension comes from his belief, drilled into him, that a good butler should never make his presence known unless directly addressed by those he is serving. Cecil believes in hard work and personal advancement. He is decidedly uncomfortable with questions of politics or public policy, which leads to decades of tension with his activist son Louis (David Oyelowo) and charges of Uncle Tom-ism. 

Parts of “The Butler” work very well, indeed. The on-the-job and off-the-job relationship of Cecil and other African members of the White House staff (Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz) is often quite amusing (in large part because in private moments these others are as laid back as Cecil is rigid).

Cecil’s marriage to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) rings particularly true. It’s by no means an ideal union — Cecil’s devotion to the job means he’s rarely at home, leaving Gloria to first drink alone and, later, with a womanizing scoundrel of a neighbor (Terrence Howard).

And the tensions with Louis — whose political journey goes from nonviolent Freedom Rider to militant Black Panther to professorial community activist — nicely delineate the many different ways in which African Americans dealt with (or didn’t) a hostile racial landscape.

Daniels employs both archival photos and footage from the Civil Rights era and dramatic recreations to depict the very real dangers facing those who would demand their rights.

Where the film trips and nearly collapses is in the scenes depicting Cecil’s interactions with a series of Presidents.

He goes to work for Eisenhower just in time to witness Ike’s vacillations concerning the desegregation of Arkansas’ public schools.  Problem is, Eisenhower is portrayed by Robin Williams, who doesn’t look like, sound like, or move like DDE. It’s celebrity casting of the worst sort.

Nor does Liev Schreiber  for one minute convince us that he is Lyndon Johnson, although there is one amusing sight gag that has the leader of the free world  talking to reporters while sitting on the toilet, beagles resting at his feet. Classic LBJ.

Just as bad is John Cusack’s portrayal of Richard Nixon. I hated RMN and his antipathy toward African Americans (he shared  J.Edgar Hoover’s belief that a black man demanding equality had to be a Commie), but this performance is so cartoonish as to convince me that the dead should be allowed to sue for slander.

Faring better are James Marsden as JFK and Minka Kelly as Jackie…who at least give their characters a bit of dignity.

And British thespian Alan Rickman provides  a surprisingly complex Ronald Reagan…although the film depicts him (based at least in part on his refusal to uphold economic sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa) as essentially unsympathetic to the plight of black people everywhere.  Jane Fonda plays Nancy Reagan, who invites Cecile and the Missus to attend a state dinner as the First Family’s guests (they realize later they’re only there to provide a couple of black faces in a sea of white).

Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are dispensed with in brief newsreel footage.

Keeping all these varied parts from flying off in every direction is Whitaker, who provides a memorable portrait of an essentially conservative man who over time is forced to think less about his own fortunes and more about those of an entire people.

Whitaker is a big man who here often makes himself look small and fragile (especially as an octogenarian in the era of Barack Obama). It’s very convincing.

As is Winfrey’s depiction of a wife who, in early twentieth-century fashion, is expected to keep the homefires burning while her man negotiates a much larger world. Small wonder she’s going stir crazy.

And as their crusading son Oyelowo manages to make plausible more transformations than a comic book superhero.

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