“The only thing I knew was cotton fields,” narrates Cecil (Forest Whitaker). So you get the idea of what he knew, the camera in Lee Daniels’ The Butler starts high up and far away, as eight-year-old Cecil (Michael Rainey Jr.) works alongside his beloved father Earl (David Banner). Here in the hot Georgia sun, they share a moment, a bit of instruction, as the boy’s mother Hattie (Mariah Carey) smiles. The moment is cut short when the monstrous master (Alex Pettyfer) shows up to force Hattie into a nearby shed. Listening to her scream, Cecil looks to his father and wonders what he means to do. The boy has another sort of moment when Earl does indeed confront the white man, only to be shot dead in the head.
The Butler uses this trauma to structure what happens next, namely, that Cecil’s experience is divided into parts, internal and external, survival and rebellion. Surely, the boy Cecil sees here—as you do—that standing up to white men is costly and that women are emblems of men’s power, possessions and sometimes emblems more than individuals. As Hattie descends into her own version of an interior life (gazing into space, unresponsive to her son), Cecil finds himself in another one: the master’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who also witnesses the abuse, takes pity on Cecil, in her way, and brings him inside where she trains him to be a “house nigger.”
As Cecil learns to be the best butler ever, during training montages with Redgrave’s Annabeth as well as his next mentor, a hotel worker named Maynard (Clarence Williams III), the film pounds the inside-outside metaphor. Hired by the White House, he becomes your guide to civil rights history by way of the slow adjustments made by a series of administrations. He watches this history unfold, mostly on TV, the film using his reactions to stand in for and shape yours.
It’s a familiar shorthand, to use TV to indicate history, just as the coincidence of TV and the civil rights movement is well documented. But The Butler doubles down on this coincidence in a way that’s distractingly overbearing, showing Cecil reacting not only to marches or sit-ins reported on television, but also to see his self-serious son Louis (David Oyelowo) involved in every such demonstration. And it’s not enough that Louis participates in a Freedom Ride or sits in at Woolworths or joins the Black Panthers: he also appears on television, repeatedly, being arrested or hosed or beaten by white racist thugs, and he’s also visible to his father at each of these moments. And so, for a couple of decades, both Louis and TV serve to instruct Cecil, to provide a series of correlative images for his pain. Per the film’s central conceit, that pain is both internal (his guilt over his role as a witness, whether with regard to his father or his son) and external, as when he worries that the presidents he serves might see Louis on TV and so fire him.
No surprise, Cecil learns that the opposite is true, when JFK (James Marsden) informs him that it’s because he knows Louis’ story, that he’s in jail and abused, that his own “heart” has been touched, along with that of the off-screen Attorney General, his brother Bobby. Cecil acknowledges the effect here, the significance of a personal story as it might affect, you know, history, but still, he has a long way to go before he forgives Louis for making him worry so.
If it’s obvious that Cecil’s awkwardness as a father is a function of the primal scene of his childhood, The Butler can’t let it go. Instead, it piles on the schematic explanations, embodied by Cecil’s other son, the charismatic and conformist Charlie (Isaac White as an adorable ten-year-old, Elijah Kelley as the teenager who goes to Vietnam). The film also leans on a repeated device, cutting between inside and outside, between Cecil polishing silver while Louis and his girlfriend Carol (Yaya Alafia) face down the Klan and Molotov cocktails or between an elaborate dinner service at the White House and the Woolworths counter where Louis and his friends have their heads bashed. As much as these montages check off a series of seminal and famous civil rights events, they also serve to underscore Cecil’s efforts to stay inside, to avoid confrontation and ensure his family’s safety and security.
No surprise, given his difficult relationship with Hattie, Cecil’s efforts here find another corollary in his longsuffering wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey). While the movie spends too much time alluding to a set of historical touchstones—Eisenhower’s (Robin Williams) big heart, Jackie Kennedy’s (Mika Kelly) pink suit, LBJ’s (Liev Schreiber) crudeness (yes, he issues orders from the toilet), and Nixon’s (John Cusack) racism and paranoia—when it spends a little time with Gloria, you get the sense that another movie, about people rather than touchstones, might have been more effective. Gloria loves her boys, helps them to survive their father’s disturbing reserve.
She also resents that reserve herself, though she does, of course love her man. Too often, The Butler treats Gloria like a touchstone, dressing her in wigs or outfits to mark a date or, even less imaginatively, show her reactions to events seen on TV. But Winfrey makes visible Gloria’s own pain and resentment, not only when Gloria drinks too much or laughs with her girlfriends or cheats on her husband, but in quieter, less busy moments, too. These moments, without a craning camera or a straining soundtrack note, make you see what’s most crucial in the butler’s story, his effects as well as his responses. That Gloria expresses her own pain and her own desires makes the film’s most important point, that history is not a trot through dates and period details, presidents and incidents but is, instead, an ongoing experience, lived and remembered and made by individuals.