It’s a bit startling to consider how few movies have been made about the Civil Rights Movement.
By Noah Gittell
It’s a bit startling to consider how few movies have been made about the Civil Rights Movement. There was a small trend in the late 1980s and early 1990s, comprised of “Mississippi Burning,” “The Long Walk Home,” “Ghosts of Mississippi,” and “Malcolm X.” Other films have touched on it – “Forrest Gump,” for example — but so few have truly examined the movement that when a film like “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” comes along and confronts audiences with realistic portrayals of the sit-ins and freedom riders of the 1950s and ’60s, it has a devastating impact.
“The Butler” tells the somewhat true story of Cecil Gaines, a White House butler who served eight presidents and changed the course of the civil rights movement. As a boy, Gaines watches his father being killed by a white Southerner. From this, he learns the value of keeping his head down and working hard, a talent that serves him well in the White House, where he is told to make the room “feel invisible” when he is in it. Still, he influences the thinking of presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan with his quiet dignity and kindness.
If that were the extent of the film, it would fit right in amongst this year’s other civil rights film, “42,” which praised Jackie Robinson’s ability to keep his head down and play baseball, without responding to the daily barrage of racial epithets and death threats. But “The Butler” instead offers a power counter-narrative of the civil rights movement through Gaines’s son, Louis, who leaves college to become an activist, a Black Panther, and eventually a congressional candidate.
Although the character of Louis feels closer to expressing the perspective of the filmmakers, the tension between father and son is the point. The film holds both approaches aloft at once and shows how social change is often achieved by working both within and without the system.
The conflict also comprises a rich domestic drama. Forest Whitaker is affecting as a father, who is both disappointed in and afraid for his son. Oprah Winfrey, as Gaines’s wife, creates a character so rich that you will actually forget who is playing her. David Oyelowo has probably the toughest job of all as Louis, transforming from a sullen teen to an enraged activist to a congressional candidate in the space of two hours.
Although they have garnered most of the press so far, the stars who play the presidents don’t make as much of an impact. The presence of Robin Williams (Eisenhower), James Marsden (Kennedy), and John Cusack (Nixon) will help get people in the theaters, but the stunt casting comes at a cost; in this movie, time rushes forward so quickly that none of the actors gets the space to build a real character. None of them quite embarrasses themselves, but neither do they add much to the film.
The real achievement here belongs to director Lee Daniels and his screenwriter Danny Strong. Strong has shown a talent for political work, having helmed HBO’s “Recount” and “Game Change,” as well as the upcoming “Hunger Games” sequels. He gets the details of each president just right – Nixon’s ability to be anything except a politician felt right on the money – but, more importantly, he shows a deep understanding of the feelings – not just the details – of the civil rights movement.
As for Daniels, it is clearly his most mature work. His “Precious” won awards for its unrestrained depiction of urban life, but 2012’s “The Paperboy” was largely dismissed as a shallow piece of Southern pulp. He is a director with a flair for the visceral, a talent that comes in handy in this story.
“The Butler” is not a film of small moments but of major moments in history that have affected the lives of millions and will surely strike a deep, personal chord for many in the audience. It is an unabashedly non-ironic work of historical fiction, perhaps that rare combination of a film we want and also need.
My Rating: See it in the Theater