If you can watch 132 minutes of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler ” with completely dry eyes, you may need to have your empathy and emotional receptivity checked. You’re a quart low – at least.
You may not be quite as close to outright blubbering as I was watching the movie, opening Friday, but then all I can do is plead contemporaneousness with the historical events of the story and a lifelong emotional investment in the subject, even though its overall racial story is certainly not mine.
There is no question that Lee Daniels’ highest-profile film since “Precious” is told in huge broad strokes and with no fear whatsoever of the most blatant sentimentality.
At the same time, please understand that this is a tough-minded movie that begins with the gruesome sight of two lynched black bodies still hanging.
But I’d submit that here is the right story at the right time (President Obama’s second term) told in the right way by the right people.
That last is of crucial importance. You don’t have to try very hard at all to understand the resentment of America’s black movie audience to the simplest of American movie facts – that stories of the civil rights movement and black liberation are so often told with white heroism at the center (“Cry Freedom,” “The Help” etc., etc.) and made by white people.
Here is a movie made by what might be thought of as this country’s black show business “establishment,” with a brilliantly subdued performance by Oprah Winfrey, no less, and directed by Daniels. His name had to be installed in the movie’s title because there was already a silent film called “The Butler.” By all means, leave his name out of the title, but don’t forget him either.
It’s hardly that white people weren’t importantly involved in “The Butler.” The script was written by Danny Strong and one of its producers was the late Laura Ziskin, most famous for “Pretty Woman.”
But what is so powerful about “The Butler” is that it’s about the life of a White House butler as lived inside the black American history of his time.
It’s based on the real-life story of White House butler Eugene Allen. What we see on screen is the upward mobility of a man fictionalized as Cecil Gaines from a teenager in the home of the man who forced himself on his mother and murdered his father to waiter in a plush Washington hotel and, ultimately, to butler in the White House through the presidencies of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Johnson, Ford, Carter and Reagan.
He is played brilliantly by that formidable Oscar winner Forest Whitaker. Winfrey plays his wife, a role miles away in both performance and story from TV’s massively powerful apostle of viewers “leading their best lives.” There isn’t the slightest trace of the massive personal presence of Winfrey, the ultimate TV mega-diva, in this performance. This is a quiet but lusty woman who suffers a husband who’s seldom home; who drinks too much in her resentment; plays around a little with the worthless, shiftless numbers runner who lives next door (Terrence Howard); and contends with two sons who offer their parents entirely different kinds of heartache.
Their older son can’t reconcile himself with his father’s White House servility and becomes what was known at the time as a “black militant” – beginning with lunch counter sit-ins and “Freedom Rides” and Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrations down South and becoming, with his girlfriend, Black Panthers. It never occurs to him that there was honor in his father’s servile cultivation of respectability until King tells the firebrand that in their subverting of all demeaning imagery about black life in America, black domestics “in many ways are subversive without even knowing it.”
Their younger son rejects his brother’s life entirely and enlists to serve in Vietnam.
Which leaves their struggling parents with two sons who have chosen to live inside the two biggest firestorms in the history of their time.
What makes this so much the right story at the right time is that all in all, the American civil rights struggle, it seems to me, was the most heroic domestic development in 20th-century American history.
Obviously, that’s what Daniels wants us to know because there are harrowing scenes of the brutal facts of American racism – demonstrators at lunch-counter sit-ins cursed, beaten and spat on, Freedom Riders terrifyingly attacked by Ku Klux Klanners who burn their bus.
These scenes are not easy for anyone to watch and yet they are as important to see for many as anything that will be in a movie all year. So many of us can’t stop marveling at the simple fact that all this happened in our lifetimes – as, in fact, we were, ourselves growing up.
The very nature of the project brought major Hollywood figures flocking to play parts. Would you believe Jane Fonda playing Nancy Reagan? Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower? John Cusack as Richard Nixon? Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Baines Johnson? Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan?
Obviously, there’s more than a little stunt-casting in such an array, but none of it gets in anyone’s way.
It’s a great story about an epic struggle successfully told in the most intimate terms. All its sentiment and melodrama is forgivable for the simplest possible reason – whatever is excessive in this movie is excessive from the heart.
lee daniels’ the butler
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr.
Director: Lee Daniels
Running time: 132 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for language, violence, thematic elements, sexual material, disturbing images and smoking.
The Lowdown: One African-American man’s 30 years as a butler in the White House encompass the most tumultuous years of the civil rights movement.