The movie wants to encompass much of the history of the entire civil rights movement in postwar America through the 1980s while also telling the intimate story of a semi-fictional African-American butler, played magnificently by Forest Whitaker, who served in the White House during seven administrations.
There was a great cable television series here that could maybe do justice to such ambitions. But a two hour-plus movie stands no chance.
If you aren’t distracted enough by the sorry sight of well-known actors masquerading wretchedly as former presidents — or, for that matter, the sight of Oprah Winfrey returning to acting in the key role of the butler’s wife — the movie keeps cutting away from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to the butler’s elder son, who somehow is involved in every key moment in the civil rights movement.
Consequently, the movie never fully explores either subject. About the best that can be said for this noble failure is that it does at times dramatize the deep divide within the black community over the best course of action to achieve freedom from Jim Crow in the ’50s and ’60s.
In truth, there are two completely different movies operating — some might say competing — in “The Butler.” The story of a young African-American cotton field worker who flees the racist South only to become a servant in the number-one household in the United States, if fully realized on the screen, would not only have made a rich character study but certainly would’ve afforded ample opportunity to comment subtlety on changes in racial attitudes in American society.
The story of a black family whose father and eldest son go radically separate ways to create his own breathing space in a white man’s world also demands the full attention of a cast and director.
In fact, probably the only sequence where the warring story lines actually coalesce into a striking visual statement is a montage showing preparations for an elaborate White House dinner juxtaposed with the son’s involvement in a lunch counter demonstration at a segregated coffee shop.
The genesis for the project came when the late producer Laura Ziskin read a feature story by Will Haygood in the Washington Post, following the historic election of Barack Obama. The story concerned 89-year-old Eugene Allen, a black butler who served under eight presidents in the White House. Sony optioned the material for her.
Screenwriter Danny Strong, who wrote HBO’s “Game Change” about the John McCain/Sarah Palin 2008 presidential campaign, was brought aboard by Ziskin to create a fictional story based loosely on this article. At some point, he decided this was a civil rights story, not a personal one.
Young Cecil Gaines witnesses the callous murder of his father in the cotton fields of 1926 Georgia, at the hands of an arrogant white plantation owner’s son (Alex Pettyfer). This has the ironic effect of turning the youngster from a field hand into a house servant where he learns the rudiments of his eventual trade.
He further expands that knowledge in a North Carolina hotel which leads to a choice job in an elite Washington D.C. hotel. A White House administrator notices the now married man’s abilities and brings him aboard the White House staff.
From this point on, the movie in a sense has three main locations — the White House, the often turbulent Gaines household and wherever Cecil’s eldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), is demonstrating.
At an early age, Cecil learned the secret to survival in a white man’s country: You must maintain two faces. You’re welcome to your own face in the privacy of your home or segregated neighborhood. On your job, however, you maintain a smile of servitude even if your skin cracks. You won’t make it otherwise.
Cecil’s face at home is often haggard and full of worry. His wife Gloria (Oprah) smokes and drinks too much and his two sons grow up neglected by their overworked, weary dad.
When he has time to think about it, Cecil is proud of his job and even gets to know personally the various occupants of the White House along with their attitudes toward race. For it’s the conceit of Strong’s story that every time Cecil brings coffee into the Oval Office, the president and his aides are discussing Little Rock, civil rights legislation or apartheid in South Africa.
Scenes in which Cecil stands mutely nearby as these white men debate the “Negro problem” suddenly jolt the film out of its mediocrity: Whitaker is one of those great actors whose silence can deliver thought better than most actors can with speech.
Meanwhile, in his comfortable middle-class house, Gaines grabs a quick beer or participates briefly in banter among neighbors, usually with a focus on racial issues. So he barely notices that his wife probably spends perhaps too much time with the next-door neighbor (Terrence Howard).
He eventually does notice that Louis Gaines reads books and magazines deeply and has no use for the two-face approach to race relations.
Louis decides to go to a Southern black college so he can participate in MLK-style passive resistance only later to adopt self-defense and confrontation by helping form the Black Panthers.
These dramatically different philosophies between father and son build to a head, a family divide interrupted by successive presidential administrations that, frankly, act as comic relief.
It’s hard to say which presidential impersonation is worse — Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber as LBJ, John Cusack as vice president and then president Nixon or Alan Rickman’s Ronald Reagan. I leave out James Marsden’s JFK only because he is the only actor even to attempt a well-known presidential voice.
None looks remotely like his man nor do any attempt the body language or bearing far too many viewers know so well. I realize most of these actors came on the set for two days work but still. Lazy, lazy, lazy.
There’s actually a third movie lurking in the margins about the White House staff, portrayed as mostly black kitchen workers. Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz have extended roles here that might have developed into a kind of comic drama about life behind the scenes. But there’s no time for that in this movie.
Ziskin passed on two years ago while still trying to raise funding once Sony opted out of “The Butler.” Then a bunch of financiers and top-heavy list of exec producers hopped aboard this project. So it’s hard to know who was ultimately in charge of decision making.
Once a project heads into Hollywood development as a film, it’s hard to pull it back out and re-conceive it as, say, a cable series or even a cable movie. It’s clear now, looking at the final film, that jamming two or really three different stories into a 132-minute movie doesn’t work.
“The Butler” doesn’t do justice to the civil rights movement or to the late Eugene Allen’s story.
Whitaker is so good in this film though that you sometimes forget about its messy gallop through history. One senses the weight on his shoulders — as a presidential servant, bread-winner and struggling father — each time he enters his own house. This is in contrast to his starched-and-pressed but-oh-so silent presence in the background of history at state dinners or in the Oval Office.
He seems to age prematurely with gray at the temples and a stoop in his shoulders and carriage. It’s a slight thing but you always sense that burden, that weight pulling him down.
Oprah — it doesn’t feel right to call her Winfrey — shows she can still act as she moves light years away from her public persona. While a loving wife and mother, her Gloria is a troubled woman. She can barely get her husband’s attention so she takes her solace in liquor and gets no psychic rewards from her husband’s job near so many rich and famous personalities.
Oyelowo does a fine job charting the shifting philosophies behind the ’60s black movements even if it’s a bit much that a single character must embrace them all, albeit one at a time. From a MLK disciple to a militant and then a grassroots politician, Louis is a seeker of freedom as well as a walking contradiction to his own father.
The period design is never too intrusive as veteran cinematographer Andrew Dunn makes good use of Louisiana locations subbing for other Southern states as well as D.C.
Opens: August 16, 2013 (The Weinstein Co.)
Production companies: Windy Hill Pictures/Follow Through Prods./Salamander Pictures/Pam Williams Prods.
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, David Oyelowo, James Marsden, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams, Mariah Carey
Director: Lee Daniels
Screenwriter: Danny Strong
Producers: Pamela Oas Williams, Larua Ziskin, Lee Daniels, Buddy Patarick, Cassian Elwes
Executive producers: Michael Finley, Sheila C. Johnson, Brett Johnson, Matthew Salloway, Earl W. Stafford, Danny Strong, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Len Blavatnik, Aviv Giladi, Vince Holden, James T. Bruce IV, R. Bryan Wright, Liz Destro, Jordan Kessler, Hilary Shor, Adam Merims
Director of photography: Andrew Dunn
Production designer: Tim Galvin
Music: Rodrigo Leão
Costume designer: Ruth E. Carter
Editor: Joe Klotz
PG-13 rating, 132 minutes