This weekend, my mom and I went to see The Butler because it was her birthday and also because she loves Oprah. Full disclosure, we saw the movie on a Saturday night with popcorn and Diet Coke for under $20, because Mom is something of a local celebrity with the early 20s, late teens crowd, having been a substitute teacher who most of them have known since kindergarten. So the experience is colored rosily regardless, because you never get to see a movie that cheap on Saturday.
I had no idea what I was walking into, since I had heard all of nothing about this movie, and really only went to see it because my mother really wanted to and I love her, and once again, she loves Oprah. Let me do a quick description of the movie (and just the movie, since quite a bit of dramatic license was taken with the true story):
Cecil Gaines (played mostly by Forest Whitaker) grew up on a cotton farm in the 1920s. While not explicitly stated, he must have been a sharecropper. In the first five minutes, his mom (played by Mariah Carey) is raped by the white landowner and apparently becomes immediately mentally infirm, and then his father is shot in the head. We hear about how much he loves his family, but we don’t get to see it, so the shock value of the immediate deaths falls a little flat. Anyway, the mother of the white landowner takes him into the house to teach him to be a house servant. As he grows, he learns to make the room empty when he’s in it, and eventually leaves the house when he realizes the white landowner will surely kill him. (Again, we don’t know WHY, as we don’t actually see any sort of emotional connection between himself and the other characters.)
Cecil goes hungry looking for a job and eventually steals some cake out of the window of a hotel. Through luck, he gets a job as a butler at the hotel. He does so well that he eventually becomes a butler at the White House, where he sees the turmoil of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s firsthand. He becomes an earpiece at some of the most important conversations that have ever happened behind closed doors, while continuing to make the room seem empty.
Meanwhile, he is also raising a family, including a son who eventually becomes one of the Freedom Riders. Needless to say, he clashes with his son since Cecil believes that the way to freedom is through quiet work. He also neglects his wife (OPRAH), who battles alcoholism, and just wants to see the White House. He has another son, who provides much of the comic relief in the film.
This movie had a TON of potential. Cecil spends much of the movie biting his lip while the powerful white men in front of him debate whether they should support the civil rights movement. Meanwhile, Cecil knows that his son could be arrested or killed at that very moment. The paradoxes and dichotomies that play out on screen are fascinating.
And never followed up on.
For all the potential that this movie had, it suffers from serious issues. Is it a biopic? Is it political commentary? Is it historical commentary? Is it about generational differences? The actors do a fabulous job with what they’re given, but you can see they lack direction. The lack of focus really hurts what is an extraordinarily interesting premise. And then somebody tried to make up for it with a voiceover, breaking the cardinal rule of “show, don’t tell.”
There were, however, a few things I loved. The juxtaposition of the quiet moments Cecil was having in the White House with the violent opposition being experienced by his son were riveting. The director did a fabulous job with the Woolworth lunch counter scene, switching between the students “practicing” for the violence they would face and what actually took place. (The difference in what the naÃ¯ve students thought the worst of humanity looked like and what actually happened was frightening.) I also loved the humorous, slice-of-life moments, such as when Cecil and Gloria were wearing matching disco leisure suits, like any middle-aged couple who thought they were the coolest thing since sliced bread.
But overall, even though the movie was long, it felt very rushed because the director was trying to tell too many stories. Even more of a pity, since so much extra drama was added to the story of the real Eugene Allen just to make the movie more exciting. Didn’t they know that the best way to tell a story is through the eyes of someone nobody notices? They didn’t need any of the additional layers to the plot. The audience does not need Cecil Gaines’ son to be one of MLK Jr.’s confidantes to understand that Cecil has an important stake in the outcome of the presidents’ decisions.
With such a brilliant cast (Forest Whitaker, John Cusack, OPRAH, Mariah Carey, Robin Williams being serious, Vanessa Redgrave, Terrence Howard, and Cuba Gooding, Jr., just to name a few) The Butler could have been so much more. As such, I give it a C+, for a great premise that failed at the basics, just to reach the sensational.