I’d never heard of Lee Daniels, so I thought that the Butler’s name was Lee Daniels. Turns out Lee is one of those Hollywood director types that thinks he made The Butler single-handedly without the help of writers, actors, or camera operators. I’ve been reading The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood by Joe Eszterhas and agree with his view of people who lay claim to a film the way Lee Daniel uses the possessive on The Butler-it’s wrong. Joe took to referring to any movie he wrote the script for as a Joe Eszterchas film, so I think this should be Danny Strong’s The Butler. Danny played Jonathan on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, btw, he’s come a long way.
Danny Strong’s The Butler is an interesting film. It’s the story of the Civil Rights Movement told from the perspective of a man who works at the White House. He and his family are black and thus have a more than passing interesting in things like the race riots, freedom riders, and boycotts because one of their sons is an active participant in these events. The Butler is a reminder that the world has changed in profound and important ways over the past fifty years and that those changes did not come easy.
The story starts in 1925, where what looks like a good old fashioned slave plantation is using black labor to raise cotton. Our hero is a small child who has to watch as first his mother is taken to a shed to have sex with the farm’s owner, and second to watch his father be killed in front of him for clearing his throat in protest. Even for the bad old days these opening scenes of cold blooded murder and lynchings seem unbelievable.
There were a lot of sad moments and a few funny ones in The Butler. The cast was brilliant-though I have to admit I was not a big fan of the many horrible character studies done in excessive makeup. I was especially impressed with Yaya Alafia, who looked like she walked right off one of the Black Power posters shown at the Black Panthers Headquarters with her huge afro and hoop earrings. Oprah did a good job of playing a bad woman as the wife of the Butler. Damn Oprah has gotten old. As has Forest Whitaker, who mostly plays middle aged and beyond here.
The story covers more than just the 1960s, but that’s where the meat of the action takes place. The one note that sort of rang false for me was the father’s sudden conversion near the end, where he finally changes his mind and decides that his son was not a criminal, but a hero. Of course, it wasn’t exactly a sudden change as it took him forty years to see the light.
The Butler was a very good film, but it’s compression of so many years into one story meant that many years and a couple of Presidents were just skipped over without any comment at all. I guess they didn’t do too much for or against Civil Rights, so they didn’t belong here.
I liked The Butler. Well worth seeing.