There have been two major films about the Black American experience released in 2012, 12 Years a Slave and The Butler. The former is about a particularly interesting moment in American history when the North saw blacks as equal citizens while the South still viewed them as slaves, property, second class citizens. It’s a powerful and moving film with an extraordinary performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as the enslaved Solomon Northup.
The Butler is more recent history, focused on the journey from slavery to house boy to White House butler of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), but it’s more about the civil rights movement, as seen through the experience of Cecil’s rebellious son Louis (David Oyelowo), who joins the first civil rights diner sit-ins, is on the so-called Freedom Bus when it’s attacked by bigots in Alabama, and even flirts with the Black Panthers.
The film opens in the 1920s when Cecil is an 8yo slave working a Georgian cotton field with his parents. A young white slaveowner (Alex Pettyfer) drags his mother into the shed, presumably to rape her, and when the father later objects, he’s shot point blank. Cecil never forgets and it’s his life mission to find his voice and speak up for his rights. Even as he’s a second class citizen in the White House, serving first one, then another, then another president.
Truth be told, I really wanted to like The Butler as I’ve heard so many good things about it, but it got increasingly formulaic as the story proceeded, finally ending with a veritable campaign advertisement for Barak Obama that suggested every African American voted for him regardless of politics, simply because he too is a Black man.
Just as much of an obstacle was the poor choice of actors to portray the various presidents, from Robin Williams, of all actors, as Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon and James Marsden as John F. Kennedy to Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Most of the time I couldn’t figure out which president they were supposed to be portraying and found myself wondering what Cusack or Rickman were doing in the White House. This poor casting adds a lot of celebrity names to the movie poster, but is also an example of where casting unknown actors would have been a huge improvement.
There are many good performances in the film, nonetheless, including Whitaker as a rather dour Gaines. Oprah Winfrey turns in a very good performance as Cecil’s mostly faithful wife Gloria, who is also the only character in the film who actually wrestles with the inherent tension of Cecil serving as a subservient butler to the most powerful man in the United States while their son Luis is part of the civil rights movement, getting beaten up as he fights against that very same inequity that all Black Americans faced. This tension should have been more central, but instead The Butler spends too much time in the White House and too little time on the streets, making it safer, but less engaging.
I have no doubt The Butler will receive some Academy Award nominations, and I know many critics found the film powerful and moving, but it left me flat and uninspired when it should have been a potent reminder of the extraordinary bravery of the men and women who fought for civil rights during a complicated moment in our country’s history and the extraordinary journey of Black Americans from slave to President.