“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” has a big job. Unlike its lead character, who is instructed to anticipate what the white folks want and otherwise make himself invisible in any room, Daniels’ ambitious historical portrait conspicuously privileges black audiences, bringing welcome attention to the African-American experience of the past half-century. Seeing the movie on opening night at L.A.’s Rave cinema with a mostly-black audience drove home how significant stories like this are for people of color.
It’s not a great movie, but it is an important one, seeking an entry point into a subject that studio execs have evidently decided audiences don’t care to see: namely, our country’s recent history of troubled race relations. “The Butler” even acknowledges this challenge by giving Forest Whitaker’s character the following lines late in the film: “Americans always turn a blind eye to what we done to our own. We look out to the world and judge. We hear about the concentration camps. Well, these camps (referring to slave quarters shown onscreen) went on for 200 years in America.”
In addition to whatever it says about the American public, this accusation dares to question why an industry so receptive to Holocaust stories has been so reluctant to produce more movies about the myriad human-rights violations perpetrated on our own shores. With “The Butler,” Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong took a “Forrest Gump”-style “witness to history” approach, inviting audiences to relive the American civil-rights movement through the eyes of Eugene Allen, an African-American distinguished by his service to eight different administrations during his 34-year tenure as a White House butler.
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For the sake of the film, Allen is reconceived as the fictional Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), whose presence represents one of the few constants in a building where agendas shift every four to eight years with the changing of the presidency. “We have no tolerance for politics at the White House,” a colleague warns when Gaines accepts the job, and sure enough, the character’s willingness to suppress his personal views makes him an ideal candidate for the position. It also makes Gaines an exasperating character at times, refusing to stand up for his ideals, except at home, where he scolds his son Louis (David Oyelowo) for his activism.
“The Butler” aims to be many things: family melodrama, history lesson, political statement. But what it most effectively represents is a beginning. There’s far too much here to cram into one feature, especially when it comes to the rotating cast of American presidents (Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, Alan Rickman as Reagan, etc.), who would have been better served by a more robust made-for-TV approach, a la NBC’s 1979 mini “Backstairs at the White House.” Still, “The Butler” is a philosophical improvement on both “Lincoln” and “The Help” in that it focuses on how black characters reshaped their own destiny, rather than simply allowing white audiences to celebrate their most progressive ancestors.
It’s a sad situation that the few stories Hollywood has given us about America’s checkered race relations — from “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Places in the Heart” to “Mississippi Burning” — tend to privilege white characters. Generally speaking, there are far too few films made about America’s slave-holding past, and even fewer that acknowledge the horrific laws put in place post-emancipation in order to keep the black man indentured (the PBS docu “Slavery by Another Name” suggests dozens of feature-worthy stories of oppression). But “The Butler” can’t be relied upon to fill in all the gaps; the film breezes by much of its own historical context, failing to mention the scandal incurred when Lincoln asked Frederick Douglass to dine at the White House, and thereby undercutting the significance when Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda) invites Gaines and his wife (Oprah Winfrey) to such a dinner years later.
The most shocking moment in “The Butler” comes early, in 1926, when Gaines witnesses a plantation owner rape his mother and then murder his father out of spite. “Any white man could kill any of us at any time and not be punished for it,” he observes. Although this scene was fictionalized for the sake of the film, it is representative of the black experience for an appalling portion of our nation’s past. And while it certainly isn’t pleasant to witness such injustices, we desperately need more chances to confront them onscreen for the same reasons that Holocaust movies have been so important to processing those events.
Fortunately, this year brings greater opportunities than most. In addition to Quentin Tarantino’s late-2012 slave-revenge fantasy “Django Unchained,” we have “The Butler,” “Fruitvale Station,” Steve McQueen’s forthcoming “12 Years a Slave” and the Hallmark Channel’s “The Watsons Go to Birmingham,” each of which engage with issues of prejudice and race inequality still simmering in our culture. Instead of asking whether audiences are ready for such stories, we should be asking why they have taken so long to reach us.