On Movies: 'The Butler' serves up kaleidoscopic look at decades of change | St. Louis Public Radio

On Movies: 'The Butler' serves up kaleidoscopic look at decades of change

Aug 22, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The movie officially called "Lee Daniels' The Butler" has its faults, but the only major one is the ungainly title, the result of what A.O. Scott of The New York Times rightly called "a ridiculous film industry food fight." The kaleidoscopic new movie I'll choose to call by its original name -- take that, Warner Bros. -- more than makes up in passion and exuberance what it sometimes lacks in continuity and focus.

"The Butler" is a complicated movie, always in motion, bobbing and weaving, simultaneously historical, political and personal, as it recounts the history of the civil rights movement from a black perspective -- most whites in the film barely have a clue, which seems about right. At the same time, it tells the story of a man forced to put forth two faces -- one when he is with fellow African Americans, the other when he is in the white man's world.

In this case, the power of what W.E.B. Du Bois called "double consciousness" is considerably heightened by the fact that the black protagonist finds his schismed self at the center of the white man's power -- he's a black servant in the White House.

Forest Whitaker gives a splendid, fiercely controlled performance as Cecil Gaines, whose father was murdered by a white man on a Mississippi cotton plantation in the 1930s, and who escaped north. Aided by other blacks, and a great deal of luck, Gaines worked as a servant, "a house Negro," until a chance remark landed him a job as a butler in the White House of Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams, appropriately low in key). Gaines showed up just in time to observe Eisenhower's momentous 1957 decision to send paratroopers to Little Rock, Ark., to accompany nine black children through the doors of Central High School.

The film, with a pungent script by Danny Strong, is loosely based on the story of a real White House butler.

As time goes on, Eisenhower makes way for Kennedy and so on into the Reagan era, and Gaines watches but seldom speaks from the heart of the hurricane, the nerve center of nation-changing decisions on public accommodations, voting rights and other major issues involving black Americans. At the same time, Gaines and his wife (Oprah Winfrey, in a fine performance) raise a family in black bourgeois D.C., softly satirized.

The Gaines home, warmly lit, filled with believable, flawed people, is a haven from the White House, of which the butler almost never speaks. Gaines has found a safe life, distant from the racial horrors going in the nearby South in the volatile 1960s, the land he had fought so hard to escape. Much to Gaines' dismay, the South is where the family's eldest son heads as soon as he is old enough to go to college. Young Louis Gaines is bent, not on escaping the South, but changing it.

Over the next 20 years, the son runs the gamut of black activism -- Freedom Rider, Martin Luther King aide, Black Power advocate, Black Panther, political candidate. And the father, at least when he is at work, tries with all his might to stay at the side of the fray, no matter how much he wants to say something. (Very rarely, he does.) To give strength and immediacy to Gaines' internal battle, director Lee Daniels ("Precious") does a splendid job of integrating staged action with news footage -- some of which comes as a shocking reminder of just how brutal Southern racists could be as they fought to hold on to their power over blacks.

There may be something a little too neat about the way the son's life follows a historical pattern, but there was no shortage of young black men and women in the civil rights era whose lives did just that. And actor David Oyelowo handles the role of the son, with its succession of big changes, with strength and control.

The acting, from a large cast of well-known performers, is superb, both from the headliner such as Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey and the dozens of prominent supporting actors. They include Cuba Gooding Jr. as a raunchy fellow butler, John Cusack as a crab-like Richard Nixon and a forceful and fair-minded Nancy Reagan, played very sympathetically by Jane Fonda. One of the pleasures of "The Butler" is that it gives us new insights into characters we thought we understood as it tells us a powerful story we only thought we knew.