Watching “Daniel Lee’s The Butler,” I couldn’t help but think of how the 1997 “Mrs. Dalloway” managed to examine controversial issues and changing attitudes during the titular woman’s one day’s preparation for an evening party. “The Butler” attempts to connect the dots between every racially charged event from President Dwight Eisenhower to President Ronald Reagan with a epilogue via the election of our current president, Barack Obama. That coupled with stunt cameo casting, cripples “The Butler” from being a tribute, a portrait or a contemplation about the title character.
Other critics have pointed to the 1994 romantic comedy “Forrest Gump” as being the guidebook for “The Butler.” In that movie, Tom Hanks portrayed the mentally challenged Forrest from Alabama who managed to be part all of the defining moments in U.S. history from 1944 to 1982.
“The Butler” is inspired by the real life of Eugene Allen. Born in Scottsville, Virginia, Allen worked at the White House from 1952 when he was hired as a pantry man until 1986 when he retired as a head butler. Allen died in March of 2010. Allen had served under eight presidential administrations. He was married for 65 years to Helene who preceded him in death in 2008. Helene missed voting for Obama, but Allen did and was invited to the inauguration. Their only child, Charles Allen, served in the Vietnam War, and later became an investigator for the State Department.
Of course, the British also produced another movie about a butler, “Remains of the Day.” That 1993 Merchant Ivory film was based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s third published novel. This movie, much like “Mrs. Dalloway,” examined socio-political issues as a butler, Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) ventures out to meet a former co-worker, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson) whom he intends to re-hire. They had worked together for Lord Darlington (James Fox) who was once an influential aristocrat. Yet Darlington was sympathetic toward the Germans and even demanded that two German-Jewish maids in his household be dismissed. Stevens did as he was ordered despite his own reluctance and Miss Kenton nearly resigned.
“Mrs. Dalloway” alludes to the main character’s initial preference for a woman but both women eventually marry men and Mrs. Dalloway choses not the main she was more attracted to, but the one who would make the best marriage in terms of stability and social position.
Both “Mrs. Dalloway” and “Remains of the Day” are concerned with class and dignity, position and regret. The movies do not feel the need to have the characters confront all the major related events in their flashbacks–Winston Churchill doesn’t show up nor American Margaret Sanger nor Noel Coward, but “Daniel Lee’s The Butler” can’t resist that temptation of hitting the history highlights. The movie could have built upon the true story of a modest man who managed to be well-liked by all the eight presidents and who, after being a servant at the White House lost its high prestige in the black community and was disparaged, remained proud of the dignity he brought to his job.
Danny Strong’s screenplay goes for dramatic parallelism and contrived coincidences. “The Butler” manipulates us by providing emotional hot flash points. The main character, here called Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), is old. He’s returning to the White House after retirement. The year is 2009 and Barack Obama has been elected. Flashing back, Strong creates a cheap explanation for Gaines silence by beginning with rape. Gaines as a boy witnesses the landowner, Thomas Westfall, ordering his mother (Mariah Carey) to a shed where he, within hearing of the other sharecroppers and Cecil’s father, rapes her. When Cecil’s father speaks up, the landowner shoots his father dead.
Feeling guilty, Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave ), the elderly woman and one guesses the mother of the landowner takes Cecil into her house as a “house nigger.” There Cecil learns how to serve. He eventually leaves the farm, fearing that in time the landowner will kill him. Works isn’t easy to find, so nearly starving he breaks into the store to stuff himself with cake. Instead of calling the cops, the head master Maynard hires Cecil and takes him in. Eventually, Maynard recommends Cecil for a job in a posh hotel in Washington, D.C.
From there Cecil moves to the big time–a job as a butler in the White House. While Cecil is serving the leader of the U.S., his wife, Gloria is raising two sons: Louis and Charlie. Gloria, played by Oprah Winfrey has her own dramas–an affair with a neighbor and a spell of alcoholism. Her liquid drug addiction is treated as a mere moment of being off-course and easily cured.
Older son sets up the historic parallelism. Louis goes to Fisk University but instead of studying becomes one of the students who under the leadership of James Lawson (Jesse Williams) participate in the Nashville sit-ins and then the Freedom Rides. Louis mets Martin Luther King Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) who tells Louis that this father by excelling in service and being highly visible is actually “subversive.”
After MLK’s is assassinated, Louis becomes interested in Malcolm X and later becomes a member of the Black Panthers while Charlie enlists to fight in the Vietnam War. Charlie dies and Louis doesn’t attend his funeral angering Cecil.
Instead of considering what a real butler might have contemplated and allowing the actor to suggest anything from despair to disappointment to delight. we are taken on a tour of history because subtle is not what this movie is about.
Some of the casting has shock value, like star turns in theatrical road shows. Winfrey doesn’t exactly desert her trademark makeup style (note that she is the only woman wearing false eyelashes in one scene and she favors black eyeshadow on her upper lids). Robin Williams. plays Dwight D. Eisenhower softens my image of the man. John Cusack gives us a Richard Nixon who is more physically attractive and a bit more like a man drunk on power than someone totally removed from reality although he did win the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s hard to separate Alan Rickman’s sonorous voice from his portrayal as Snape, making his Ronald Reagan a bit more slithery. The worst is Jane Fonda, former political activist and political wife, as Nancy Reagan. At five-foot-eight Fonda isn’t the big-headed pixie that the five-foot-four Nancy Reagan was and doesn’t have to wear those suit jackets with the constructed shoulders and vibrant red to get attention. Ronald Reagan was six-foot-one as is Rickman.
The big stars have little time to make us forget themselves and seduce us into believing them has their character. They don’t have time to live as their historic figures making them more a distraction than an asset to “The Butler.”
“The Butler” isn’t subtle and lacks the dignity or the understanding of layered character building and transformations. Despite this Whitaker grows into his role, bringing some emotional weight into a movie that hasn’t clearly decided who or what black butlers are–subservient or subversive. We can’t all be so closely connected to major historical events of our days under the sun and in service, but we are all somehow affected.