Whether or not the new Oscar hopeful “The Butler” (opening wide today) takes hope any Academy Awards, it’s safe to say the film has a bright future in American schools. Though it’s technically fiction, “The Butler” is foremost an educational survey of the civil rights movement, skipping like a stone across one turbulent water after another: Jim Crow, the Klan, Selma, Montgomery, black liberation theology, Martin Luther King Jr., the truncated promise of the Kennedy Administration, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Nelson Mandela and South African apartheid, on through to the movement’s apotheosis, the election of Barack Obama.
For a movie with this much going on – not to mention the Vietnam War, Watergate and other nonracial concerns – “The Butler” deserves some credit for pacing itself like the well-oiled Weinstein Company prestige picture it is. With more than four decades of history crammed into just over two hours, this film never feels like an overstuffed turkey. If anything it’s a generous side of vegetables––a picture that knows it’s good for you.
“The Butler” filters its half-century of racial tumult through the prism of one man: Forest Whitaker’s Cecil Gaines, a penurious and uneducated sharecroppers’ child from the segregated south who would go from burgling homes for food to pouring tea for world leaders as a butler for the White House, ultimately serving eight presidents. This Horatio Alger myth-come-true has its roots in reality: The narrative is inspired by, but takes countless liberties with, the story of Eugene Allen, who spent 36 years working his way up from “pantry boy” to maitre d’ at the nation’s capital.
The film’s central conflict, however, is by all accounts the creation of screenwriter Danny Strong, and it acts as the focused human foundation underlying this opera of national change. Rather than respect his father’s successful advancement in a world of white men, the butler’s son Louis (David Oyelowo) shuns Cecil as an Uncle Tom, preferring to hit the streets, organize sit-ins at white-only lunch counters, join the Black Panthers and force black parity through any means necessary.
This polarized relationship between father and son presents a compelling domestic microcosm of two prevailing schools of thought in the civil rights movement: polite acquiescence vs. paradigm-shifting disobedience. Both were necessary, the film seems to be saying, to advance racial equality. Each viewpoint crystallizes perfectly in the film’s best-scene: a rousing, fierce and authentic dinner-table debate about Sidney Poitier, who then fresh off the success of “In the Heat of the Night.” To Cecil, he’s an inspiring success story in an industry of Caucasian dominance, and to Louis, he’s a culture-eschewing panderer happy to play into white attitudes.
As far as the rest of “The Butler”––all of those sweeping historical touchstones––it loses in profundity what it provides in civil rights Cliff’s Notes. As the story gallops from one president to the next, it becomes a game of Name That Star, with A-listers barely given enough time to make an impression, let alone embody their world leader in three dimensions. Most of them are broadcast in reductive caricatures: Robin Williams’ Eisenhower as a stern, humorless thinker; John Cusack’s Nixon as a rumply, disheveled ogre swatting at the flies he has shamefully loosed in the Oval Office. Liev Schreiber’s one memorable blip as LBJ finds the great civil rights executive taking a presidential dump, his basset hounds at the foot of the toilet.
There are a lot of iconic images to gaze at in “The Butler” – including a visceral and unforgettable exhibition of racial terror against Louis and his fellow-protestors – but little to ponder beneath the surface. This is the kind of the film that tells you everything you should know as a proper, politically correct American, leaving me grasping for that intangible concept of subtext. Handsomely directed by Lee Daniels and well acted by, among others, Oprah Winfrey, as Cecil’s wife, “The Butler” stirs the heart without really energizing the brain.