Life in Macon, GA couldn't have been easy for a cotton field worker, which is where "Lee Daniels' The Butler" commences, with eight-year-old Cecil Gaines (Michael Rainey Jr.) picking cotton with his mom and dad. Brutality and violence are the watchwords of the day from the farm's overseer, and within the first five minutes of the film we're immersed into a time and place where African Americans are being deprived even the most basic human liberties. From here on out, Cecil is "saved" from the fields, more on that in a moment, but by the time he's almost an adult he realizes the South is not a place he wants to be any longer. Mr. Gaines heads to Washington D.C. to seek work as a butler. Life as a domestic employee gives him a real chance at something resembling peace and stability, and it's only because he received training in a house during his youth that he's able find such work on a professional level.
By the time Mr. Gaines reaches the White House, he's in his early thirties, and naturally he's as shocked as any of us would be to be thrust into the nation's innermost circle, the trappings of world power evident all around. Cecil (Forest Whitaker) starts his employment in the Eisenhower Administration in 1957, and it's here the film will start the true journey, showing us the juxtaposition of working with the most powerful man in the world, all while you and your family were being exposed to disenfranchisement and Jim Crow laws. This dichotomy, of course, will lead to a massive sense of outrage and disbelief from any audience, and many of the most poignant moments in "Lee Daniels' The Butler" are culled from this fertile environment.
Where "Lee Daniels' The Butler" runs into trouble is when it becomes apparent that there are either too many stories for the film to tell, or perhaps a lack of awareness about which narrative to focus in on. There are times Cecil is an absentee father, and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) becomes the true hero of the story, working mightily to hold the family together. However, alcoholism and infidelity are also hinted at, for some reason, though they don't seem at all relevant to the matters at hand. By the time of Cecil's employment, he and Gloria are the proud parents of two boys, but Cecil's chosen profession as a butler has him spending far more time at the White House than he does his own house.
The movie makes it somewhat clear that working day in and out may hold some hope toward greater rights for all African Americans, but it just as quickly pivots towards the idea that Cecil's job is demeaning and ultimately counter-productive. Though the Civl Rights Movement was inherently complex and riddled with duality, the missed opportunity of "Lee Daniels' The Butler" was the chance to tie it all together for us. Unfortunately, By choosing to make all the choices instead of more precise ones, the movie renders itself somewhat muddled.
You could also make the case that this movie is actually about the butler's son, Lewis (David Oyelowo), and perhaps it should have been. Lewis represents the other side of striving for equality, the people out on the streets, purposefully provoking and exposing the absolute unfairness of the system that was in place. Lewis, as a character, has the most consistency, but his relationship with his father is troubled, which also drags down the film in places. Much as with last year's "Hyde Park on Hudson" this is a film that gets confused as to how to play the huge societal issues being tackled while at the same time remaining intimate and focused on the humanity of those involved in affecting change.
Where the film thrives is in avoiding most of the one-note villains most movies ascribe to. Indeed, the involvement of the entire nation in The Civil Rights movement isn't shied away from or ignored, much to the credit of the film, for "Lee Daniels' The Butler" is clearly aware that all pro-human change ultimately comes from within, as people search their souls and conscious to stand up for what's right.
Truly, there are more good moments than bad throughout. Where "Lee Daniels' The Butler" excels is in the single huge moments that etched into our national consciousness, putting you front and center in the world-shaking events of the era. When firehoses are used on protesters, when Freedom Riders speak truth to power, when an entire race is discriminated against based on nothing more than tradition, it's here where "Lee Daniels' The Butler" shows off the ability to evoke tears of empathy and disbelief. The world looks very different now, for the better, and clearly many of the people highlighted in the film played some small part in the sea change.
All of the Presidents portrayed here are infused with little quirks that show off the oft-forgotten fact that they were simply men making decisions that had far-reaching consequences. Plus, as the movie is also based on a true story, it's hard not to feel the real life impact of the tumultuous times. Still, while "Lee Daniels' The Butler" is full of truth, and occasional cinematic beauty, it is ultimately lesser for trying to tackle everything, as opposed to the most important thing. The idea that "Lee Daniels' The Butler" isn't really about Forest Whitaker's take on Cecil Gaines may be historically accurate, but unfortunately it never quite adds up to a coherent story. Perhaps it's a reflection on how chaotic being on the front lines of huge societal shifts must have been, but now, 40 years later, with some reflection, we all would have been better off if a few doses of clarity entered the equation.
SCORE: 6.4 / 10
Laremy wrote the book on film criticism and would love to work at The White House.