You might wonder what this film is trying to say to African Americans as I watched it, particularly in the first half hour.
There seems to be a real message that conforming to the system (albeit doing so smartly) is better than aggressively and politically expressing your rights. The hero of the tale, after all, is the quiet servant who’s asked ‘are you political?’ before he takes the job that will define his life. One of his antagonists is his own son, angry at the way blacks have been treated in America and wanting to rock the boat and upset the status quo with all the bravery and hostility he can muster.
You’ve seen the sequence in the trailer where Cecil (Whitaker) and his son Louis (Oyelowo) are arguing about politics and mother Gloria (Winfrey) slaps the younger man, telling him ‘everything he has is because of that butler’. She’s right, but is the film telling us to stand by and not hope to make things better one generation at a time? Might a parallel story somewhere be about the son of an oil executive getting a slap from his mother, reminded how everything he has is because his father destroys the environment for a living?
To the film’s credit, both Cecil and Louis are equally right. Cecil has found what he’s good at and channeled it into the only decent career a black man could hope for in the 1950s – he would have spent his life washing toilets and mopping floors otherwise. And apart from an all-too-contrived aside to demonise the Black Panther movement, Louis grows up to find his soul as an activist.
The more urgent story is whether he can reconcile with his father, and any conformity message seems swept away in the last few minutes when it depicts Cecil as an old man attending a protest rally organised by his son – the first time the two have seen each other in years.
It begins with Cecil working in a swanky hotel bar when he’s spotted and headhunted by a White House staffer. He goes on to serve food, drink and occasionally friendship to Presidents from Eisenhower right through to Reagan (one of the best parts is seeing how actors including Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, Melissa Leo, John Cusack and Jane Fonda play various iterations of the first couple).
As the years go by, Cecil sees the stop-start nature of race relations in America very much from the inside, even partly inspiring it (no doubt embellished slightly from the real story the movie’s based on).
Make no mistake, it’s completely about race relations and only a little bit about being a butler. Some sequences are by their nature offensive – watching Cecil bow and scrape to buffoons like Lyndon B Johnson (Schreiber), while he sits on the toilet and uses the word ‘nigger’ as casually as any backward redneck is excruciating. Thankfully the movie as a whole isn’t as simplistic as some of the scenes make it seem, and the themes – in the end – are worthy.
The period detail is great – particularly in the lifestyles of 60s and 70s African American culture. The cast is also uniformly excellent (especially Winfrey, who’s a real surprise if you’ve never seen her act before).
And don’t forget, it’s not called ‘The Butler’ but ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’, because Warner Bros – to their shame – blocked The Weinstein Company from using the original name, citing some movie from the 1920s nobody cares about that has the same name.
Of course, the whole thing is undoubtedly some bullshit vendetta by a Warners exec to punish mogul Harvey Weinstein for some perceived sleight – how many movies have we seen before with the same names? Grow up, Hollywood.