Lee Daniels’ The Butler is the new movie by director Lee Daniels, who also made a movie with a similarly overly-descriptive title called Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, which, if tied with Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, makes for the easiest essay to write if you need to reach a word count.
Wow, this is already getting off track. Alright, so, Lee Daniels. Of his filmography, the only other movie I’ve seen is Precious. I think that Precious is incredible. The titular character’s life is harsh and brutal; the movie itself, raw and visceral. He avoids cynicism in portraying the young woman who is stuck in a miserable situation both because of her family and social norms/instutitions, but also doesn’t sentimentalize. I haven’t seen Precious since it first came out, but I remember being absolutely blown away.
That’s why I was interested in The Butler, although the trailers make it look like an overly-sentimental, historical romp. The story follows Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who works on a plantation in his youth (post-slavery) and then at the White House from 1952 to 1986. The major focus is the civil rights movement in all its forms and impacts. Honestly, I worried that this subject matter would be glossed over, or too simplistic, as can happen with movies about such a difficult topic. I was mostly concerned that, by virtue of being rated PG-13, the material would be castrated.
Man, was I wrong. In the first five minutes there are lynchings, rape, and murder. This is not a light movie by any stretch. I am usually not enamored by historical pieces, because while they can be good depictions of various issues, they’re not always good movies. But Daniels is so concerned with portraying the turbulent history of the rights of black people in America that he brings with him the same passion that he brought to Precious. That might be what impressed me the most: Precious is about one girl, and is an intimate portrayal, but somehow he makes a movie about at least two main characters over a period of half a century equally intimate. I can’t think of many people that are able to pull something like that off.
Daniels has two fundamental concerns in depicting history: the philosophies and actions that encapsulate the Civil Rights Movement. Largely, the former are revealed in conversations between Cecil and his son Louis (David Oyelowo)–who travels the country engaging in the Movement–and Cecil and the presidents. The latter are revealed by following Louis during his journey. What impresses me about the philosophies aspect is how thorough it is. First off, we see Louis, who believes in fighting for equal rights. He joins several groups of all sorts, following famous leaders and joining infamous organizations. From him, we get several perspectives on the way that Civil Rights Activists wanted to earn their rights. All are given equally thoughtful consideration.
But then there is also the philosophy of Cecil, who is so happy to simply have a good job and a family–considering the lifestyle he had growing up–that he thinks rights come from working hard rather than staging protests. And you know what? His mindset is considered with equal thought to the others. It’s not a matter of right and wrong, but perspective. Cecil and Louis had distinct lifestyles growing up, and so their approaches to the subject are distinct. Daniels’ respectful approach is nuanced and powerful.
And then, there’s the actions of the Civil Rights Movements, such as the staged protests. Here is where, in my opinion, Daniels raises the bar from an informative history piece to a good film. As opposed to the philosophical musings, which are filmed fairly straight-forwardly, the actions–sitting in a Whites Only section, or being confronted by the KKK–are formalistic. By that, I mean that Daniels employs techniques like quick cuts, powerful imagery, and other expressionistic techniques to make us feel how powerful these events are. In fact, one of the strongest examples–and I’ll try to avoid spoilers here–involves the death of a famous man. We hear about what has happened, but instead of seeing it, we get a lingering shot of his wife sobbing and rocking back and forth as the sound is drowned out. This scene hit me hard. Daniels does this with a lot of the bigger scenes in the movie, and it pays off.
But besides the historical aspects, made up of philosophies and actions, there is, as is important for any story, a dedication to character. Cecil and Louis are both developed in relation to each other and independently. Their arcs are engaging not merely because of the historical value, but because the characters themselves are treated like people. Not avatars, not representatives, but people. That, I think, comes from the same skill set that Daniels employed in Precious.And besides Cecil and Louis, there is also Cecil’s wife, Gloria (Oprah freakin’ Winfrey, who I’d never seen in a movie but thought did great). While Cecil and Louis comprise two mindsets of the Civil Rights Movement, Gloria presents another entirely: the absence of serious investment. She wants for the horrors committed against black people to stop, of course, but she’s more concerned with her personal life and relationship with her husband. Her viewpoint is important too, because in any cause or historical movement there are also people who just want to live their lives. All three of these characters together create unique and engaging stories, but also distinct yet important mindsets.
If you think that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is some fluff piece, or Oscar-bait, or whatever, I hope that I’ve convinced you otherwise. See the movie if you have the time and money, because it’s not only challenging and thought-provoking, but it’s also a damn good movie in its own right. The acting is top-notch all around, and it has five of the best cases of actors playing presidents all in one movie. I knew about some and not others going in, but each one delighted me to no end. I’ll give you a hint: Eisenhower is played by a comedian who won an Oscar, and it’s not Mo’Nique.