"The Butler" is alternately touching, sobering, depressing and even unnerving. It is a beautiful example of how time allows us to set aside politics, but current events will still get under our skin. Half of this movie will make you feel like a better person for having watched it; the other half will leave you wanting to pick fights on Internet comment boards.
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" (named for its director) offers its audience a near-comprehensive take on the civil rights movement of the 20th century, told through the perspective of an African-American butler named Cecil Gaines. Gaines, played by Forest Whittaker, is based on a real-life individual named Eugene Allen, hence the "inspired by" at the beginning of the film.
The story begins in the Georgia cotton fields of the 1920s, where Gaines worked with his parents in near slave-like conditions. Emancipation feels like mere lip service as his mother is assaulted and his father murdered in quick succession, without a whiff of accountability. This experience shifts Gaines from a field worker to a "House Negro," starting a journey that will eventually lead him to the White House as a butler, where his childhood frames his observation of the decades to come.
As a high-profile servant in the White House, Gaines effectively becomes a fly on the wall for all the great moments of the second half of the 20th century. His "inside man" perspective is mirrored by his son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who dives headfirst into political activism while his father takes the more reserved approach.
This polarity between Gaines and his son drives the film's central question: What is the best way to affect real change? Gaines chooses to be the quiet example, biting his tongue when those around him (frequently the current president) talk about his plight as though he isn't standing at attention in the back of the room. Louis chooses a more proactive path that initially brings him into the fold with Martin Luther King Jr., but veers into uncertain waters when the Black Panthers choose to fight fire with fire following King's assassination.
To its credit, the film seems to have a good grasp of the pros and cons of each approach, and for the most part manages to keep any party from feeling too picked on.
The all-star cast that peppers the screen in everything from lead roles to glorified cameos is one of "The Butler's" most interesting elements, but also its most distracting. Whitaker is perfectly balanced and sympathetic as Gaines, Oyelowo shows great depth as Louis, and Oprah Winfrey plays Gaines' wife Gloria with grace and reserve.
But as interesting as it is to see John Cusack's take on Richard Nixon and Alan Rickman's interpretation of Ronald Reagan, a more anonymous cast for the laundry list of historical icons might have allowed for better audience immersion than "The Butler's" game of "spot the celebrity."
Some of the casting choices, such as Jane Fonda's role as Nancy Reagan, will no doubt fire the flames of political controversy. And here is where "The Butler" stumbles. (Mild spoiler alert.) After spending the bulk of the film chronicling the critical mass of the civil rights movement through the ’50s and ’60s, Daniels moves at high speed to use the 2008 election of Barack Obama as the celebratory capstone of Gaines' journey.
It's a pretty obvious move that is hard to debate, but the move to feature a sitting president whose own legacy is still being written leaves the film feeling a lot more political than it needed to be. It's easy to set aside politics when you have a 50-year buffer between you and someone's interpretation of history; it's something else when that same someone is telling you how to feel about current events.
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"The Butler" has some wonderful moments that are powerful and moving, but its scope will ultimately (and unfortunately) polarize its audience.
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is rated PG-13 for scattered language (including racial ephitets and one use of the F-word), some brutal but largely bloodless violence, and some mild sexual content.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition at Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.