The Difference Between a Good Movie and an Important One: The Butler

"Sometimes I just think, Are you serious that I'm saying this right now, that I have to talk about what is going on in America today?" director Lee Daniels told Indiewire earlier this week about his new film The Butler. Indeed, his film's survey of major events in the struggle for black civil rights in America feels simplified, if not dumbed-down—if not outright condescending.

While Forest Whitaker's Cecil Gaines (the titular butler, based on the real Eugene Allen) patiently serves in the White House through eight presidential terms, we simultaneously zip through sharecropping, marches, sit-ins, assassinations, the end of segregation, the rise of the Black Panthers, and, finally the election of the first black president. It has all the nuance and finesse of a large-print reader handed out to fifth-graders during Black History Month. Forrest Gump comparisons are apt.

While I didn't particularly enjoy enduring The Butler, I get it. Real, explicit, difficult conversations about race occur too infrequently in pop culture. But The Butler mostly fails on this front. Its script, by Danny Strong, is strained and artificial, a historical litany of what its star Oprah Winfrey calls "A-ha Moments" ("That was first time I ever seen a white man stick his neck out for us"), delivered with perpetually hushed reverence. It reminded me of 2004's Crash, in that barely a scene goes by without a forced discussion of race, no matter who's talking (often, it's a president being insensitive as Cecil looks on by with devastating humility).

But I get that in order to communicate with stupid people, sometimes you gotta get stupid yourself. In doing so, The Butler probably gives up its shot at being a great movie. But it is a great feat, and it works much better as an artifact than a film.

Daniels and Winfrey have talked long and hard about the difficulty in getting this black-dominated drama off the ground. "I didn’t believe you’d get anybody to greenlight this," Winfrey told Daniels on a recent episode of Charlie Rose. Nobody did, really—it took 41 producers to amass the budget necessary to get The Butler made (ultimately a relatively small $30 million). Daniels said that even after he cast Whitaker and Winfrey (the latter being one of the most powerful pop-culture figures on the planet, if you need reminding), there was still resistance:

… Having Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker attached wasn't enough, which is a testament to where we are in Hollywood today with African-Americans. We still couldn't finance the film with them at that budget. And so, one name after another, more names, more names. I had to figure out whether or not I wanted to find names or no names for the Presidents and just stick to it.

Those "names" include Robin Williams (as Dwight D. Eisenhower), James Marsden (as John F. Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (as Lyndon B. Johnson), John Cusack (as Richard Nixon), and Alan Rickman (as Ronald Regan). None deliver particularly convincing performances (though Rickman's perma-wince of constipation is dead-on), but all serve as reminders that Hollywood history is just as white-male dominated as U.S. history. Daniels' explanation of their casting serves to remind that it still is.

To its credit, The Butler doesn't whine or preach much. It's happy to settle for a broad rendering of the way things were and are. White supremacy keeps Cecil underpaid compared to his white colleagues, but his unjustly modest salary supports a lower middle-class life that allows his son Louis (David Oyelowo) to branch off, protest, and eventually pursue a political career. "Everything you are and everything you have is ‘cause of that butler," says Cecil's wife Gloria (Winfrey) to their son during a showdown. Cecil isn't a bad guy for forbidding his sons to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., speak, The Butler says, just a product of his time who's accepted the system because he was raised without a choice.

Winfrey, by the way, also isn't great here—she's at her best when she's reflexively backhanding her son or clucking under her breath, but otherwise she's inhabiting a character who's written too broadly to come off as truly inhabited. She's never less than apparently Oprah, and when she dances along to Soul Train wearing an afro wig and a tight bodysuit, it's like the goofiest Oprah Winfrey Show segment ever.

Ultimately the quieter moments are what kept me interested. Whitaker's combination of humiliation and held-back dignity when Cecil is turned down for a raise is as subtle as it is masterful. And when The Butler forgoes serving up its contrived and over-cooked race heart-to-hearts, it manages to create some authentic "A-Ha Moments." In the beginning of the film, Cecil explains what it was like to be a black man in the 1920s: "Any white man could kill any of us at any time and not be punished for it. The law was not on our side. The law was against us." The moment reverberates through the theater, and the long nine decades of work and resistance between the bad old 1920s Cecil describes and the 2010s of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin seem like only the start of an ever-ongoing struggle.

The Butler regularly reminds us of how far we have come in terms of race relations and equality and then knocks us on the ass with how far we haven't come. Daniels said one of his challenges was "not making the film feel self-important," but that's ridiculous. Anything with this scope and subject matter is going to feel self-important because it is important. For the most part, I didn't enjoy The Butler, but I do respect it. It feels like this moment—the most talked-about movie in the country being one about the African-American experience, as told largely by African-Americans themselves—is so much bigger than the movie. But I hope the movie becomes big enough to lead the way for many more of these moments.