Lee Daniels is not a filmmaker you can trust. Other than Precious (very exploitative, but successful) his movies tend to be bloated, campy affairs. Ever seen Shadowboxer or The Paperboy? So bad, they work as unintended comedies.
Given The Butler’s loaded cast (no less than 14 name actors, plus an unbilled cameo by Mariah Carey), early word wasn’t promising. Imagine my surprise to find a very decent meditation on race in America. Sure, there wasn’t any need to cast Robin Williams as Eisenhower or give Oprah Winfrey an infidelity subplot, but The Butler could have been much, much worse.
Credit Forest Whitaker for keeping the broadness Daniels is known for at bay. Whitaker is Cecil, a man who grew in a cotton plantation as a servant (although, based on the way his family is treated, it could have been the antebellum south). Circuitously, Cecil perfects his craft by learning how to disappear in a room. Soon, this skill takes him to the White House as a butler to the President. The position turns him in first-row witness of the progresses and concessions of the civil rights movement.
His capacity to appear submissive and obsequious (often hiding his true feelings) puts him at odds with his eldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), a committed activist for the African-American cause. The family rift runs deep, even though they both want the advancement of their community.
The Butler mixes some powerful scenes (Louis and other activists challenge the “white section rule” at a diner) with some very contrived ones (Cecil shares the room with Jackie Kennedy just hours after the assassination of JFK). It doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a good reminder of the achievements of the civil rights movement, capped by the election of the first black President. It also underlines new forms of inequality, such as voter identification laws. Flawed and all, The Butler is an enriching experience.
Three committed prairie dogs.