Source: Peter Debruge / Variety
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” has a big job. Unlike its lead character, who is instructed to anticipate what the white folks want and otherwise make himself invisible in any room, Daniels’ ambitious historical portrait conspicuously privileges black audiences, bringing welcome attention to the African-American experience of the past half-century. Seeing the movie on opening night at L.A.’s Rave cinema with a mostly-black audience drove home how significant stories like this are for people of color.
It’s not a great movie, but it is an important one, seeking an entry point into a subject that studio execs have evidently decided audiences don’t care to see: namely, our country’s recent history of troubled race relations. “The Butler” even acknowledges this challenge by giving Forest Whitaker’s character the following lines late in the film: “Americans always turn a blind eye to our own. We look out to the world and judge. We hear about the concentration camps, but these camps (referring to slave quarters shown onscreen) went on for 200 years in America.”
In addition to whatever it says about the American public, this accusation dares to question why an industry so receptive to Holocaust stories has been so reluctant to produce more movies about the myriad human-rights violations perpetrated on our own shores. With “The Butler,” Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong took a “Forrest Gump”-style “witness to history” approach, inviting audiences to relive the American civil-rights movement through the eyes of Eugene Allen, an African-American distinguished by his service to eight different administrations during his 34-year tenure as a White House butler.
For the sake of the film, Allen is reconceived as the fictional Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), whose presence represents one of the few constants in a building where agendas shift every four to eight years with the changing of the presidency. “We have no tolerance for politics at the White House,” a colleague warns when Gaines accepts the job, and sure enough, the character’s willingness to suppress his personal views makes him an ideal candidate for the position. It also makes Gaines an exasperating character at times, refusing to stand up for his ideals, except at home, where he scolds his son Louis (David Oyelowo) for his activism.
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