The Butler was taken not from the story of Eugene Allen but his situation. A member of the White House serving staff for thirty-four years, Eugene Allen served seven presidents during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. In this film his cipher is Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, a man whose life is probably closer to that of Forest Gump than Eugene Allen’s. Gaines’ life is presented to us in the form of a biopic; he narrates his life story from his early childhood right up until the moment he is given an audience with President Barrack Hussain Obama.
Through his eyes we are given a unique insight into the changing face of America’s racial politics. From his perspective we see the discussions had by some of the most powerful men in the country, deciding the fates of some of the most vulnerable. The caveat is even though he’s a man who’s seen more than his fair share of violent prejudice, Cecil can use none of his experience to help sway the minds of men who trust him with their bedtime spirits. As is said in the most quotable line of the film “We have no tolerance for politics at the White House.”
The rules are known from the very beginning. Scene after scene we have the notion beaten into us that the only way for a black man to survive in a position of servitude is to keep his mouth shut. In the highest office of a country that claims to be built upon the principals of free speech, Cecil Gaines must suppress his thoughts, fears and opinions if he is to stay employed there. It’s an intriguing contradiction.
Unfortunately the potential for such a conflict isn’t as bountiful as you may have thought. The inner sanctum of White House hospitality doesn’t make for the kind of volatile working environment the suburban homes of The Help did. Watching Gaines’ grin and bear it when politicians throw another barrel into the path of the Civil Rights Movement is like lighting a fuse to which there is no keg. Gaines never takes action and as much as we would like to see it, we never expect him to.
In these scenes Gaines’ is by far and away the most interesting character, which is why it’s a shame that he’s given the least amount to do. Instead these scenes are driven by a series of actors all impersonating different presidents with varying degrees of success. James Marsden is great as Kennedy and Alan Rickman is uncannily like Ronald Reagan. John Cusack’s Nixon however seems to have a lot in common with John Cusack’s Edgar Allan Poe, in that when I look at him all I see is John Cusack. The star spotting nature of these cameos become so prevalent to the experience of The Butler, they threaten to take over the film entirely.
The film bends over backwards to fit around this Forrest Gump-esque structure of historical streamlining. It sacrifices narrative clarity and character drama just so it can shock you with how many times Lyndon Johnson used the N word, or tell you how Gaines’ came to own Kennedy’s tie pin. You begin to question what the purpose of the film was in the first place. The parade of presidential impersonations seems a commercial indulgence, a series of selling points rather than plot points. Also, the White House seems strangely hushed. Fearful of rubbing people up the wrong way, the White House interactions seem sanitised, the film constantly holding itself back from how far it could go in treating them as targets. For a group of people it aims to criticize The Butler remains awfully reverential to them. But when the film leaves the White House it regains its sense of freedom.
Because when this film shines it does so outside the influence of that imposing edifice. Much like the real African Americans upon which this film was based, it only comes to life when the white folk aren’t around. The scenes in Cecil’s house, or the scenes in the coloured kitchens are filled with all of the things the White House scenes are missing. Whitaker unleashes a charisma you’d be forgiven for forgetting he had. His smiles are filled with genuine warmth, not marred by the dead eyed glare the sterilisation of the Oval Office grants him. There is an authenticity to these scenes that makes their impact hit harder. Finally The Butler stops the impersonations and starts to give us characters we in the real world might recognize.
This is where we start to see that Gaines hasn’t left all his humanity behind him. He loves his family and the intensity of that love is at the heart of the home scenes. His wife, played by Oprah Winfrey, is a lonely alcoholic; she and the film are unafraid to have her appear weak, pathetic and slovenly. Her deterioration signifies the impact of Gaines’ absence from their home. It’s an important role and one that she fulfils admirably.
But the stand out star of the movie is David Oyelowo as Louis Gaines, Cecil’s oldest boy. Told in parallel with his father’s time in the White House, Louis is on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. Through him we are taken through the steps and processes that would eventually lead to civil disobedience in the Deep South, and the violence that would ensue thereafter. These scenes are shocking, powerful and a stark contrast to Cecil’s life as a butler. It’s hard to empathise with Cecil’s concerns about promotion when you see his son set upon by a gang of cross burning rednecks, fighting in the heart of the Civil Rights battleground. It brings home Cecil’s impotence to improve his situation, to make his voice heard to the people that can influence the most change. Ultimately it makes us realise that the promise on the film’s poster, the one that tells us “One quiet voice can ignite a revolution,” is an empty one. Cecil neither initiates change nor tries too.
Perhaps the son’s scenes are supposed to be the payoff for the fathers repression, but the disconnect between the two is too great. It makes them feel like they belong to different films, one self-indulgent, reverential and frivolous; the other relevant, urgent and angry. I would much rather have had a full ninety minutes of the latter than a hundred and twenty where they’re competing for space. The contrast angle is a nice idea, but the film prioritises its never ending supply of celebrity cameos over the internal struggle of its title character. Wanting to emulate a film like Forest Gump is not a bad idea inherently, but sacrificing the integrity of your film to do it is to waste the potential of the central premise.