‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr. in 1958, paraphrasing the abolitionist Theodore Parker. From the viewpoint of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the moral universe of the past half-century is less of an arc and more of a funnel, a smooth and rapid convergence of historical characters and events to a single, defining moment.
Inspired by a 2008 Washington Post profile, The Butler (director Lee Daniels affixed his name after a copyright dispute) traces the career of Eugene Allen, who started work in the White House in 1952 and served eight presidents before retiring in 1986 as maître d’hôtel. The new film from the director of Precious reimagines Allen as butler Cecil Gaines, who witnesses the occupants of the Oval Office making civil-rights history, even as his own son participates in the Freedom Rides, the Birmingham campaign, and the Black Panther Party.
But The Butler is not really about Eugene Allen; that much is clear from the opening seconds, in which the camera drifts over a Georgia plantation while Forest Whitaker intones with quiet majesty, “The only thing I ever knew was cotton.” Never mind that Allen was actually born in Virginia.
Never mind, either, that Allen’s mother and father were not respectively raped and murdered by a cartoonishly brutal white landowner — or that such depredations would not have been casually dismissed in the early 1920s, even if carried out against black sharecroppers.
Daniels and his screenwriter, Danny Strong, waste no time on such niceties. Like an extended version of Billy Joel’s music video for “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” the 132-minute film races through the latter half of the 20th century at vignette speed. Every brief, choppy scene — the parade of fake presidents reciting speeches on grainy Westinghouse TVs, the terse arguments between Cecil and his headstrong son, the reenacted riots interspersed with newsreels from Birmingham and Vietnam — betrays the filmmakers’ impatience. This is a “docudrama” with a destination in mind.
In this respect, The Butler differs critically from Forrest Gump, which Strong cited as an inspiration for his everyman-epic screenplay. Gump leavened its pop-historical pomp with the blithe humor and gentle sensibility of its protagonist, using the upheavals of the Sixties and Seventies as raw material for the creation of a memorable character. Butler works (or doesn’t) in precisely the opposite fashion, reducing an interesting real-life man and his associates to flat ciphers in pursuit of a larger goal. Whitaker’s stately voice brings only the barest semblance of humanity to an utterly passive Cecil Gaines; Oprah Winfrey fares slightly better as his wife Gloria, but her role is so stuffed with clichés as to leave little room for maneuvering. The same goes for David Oyelowo as their son, Louis, whose progression from peaceful idealist to fiery Black Panther to Democratic politician proceeds with whole seconds of introspection.
Along the way, just about every presidential cliché is taken down from the shelf for a quick polish: Ike paints a humble landscape with sunflowers, Jack and Jackie enjoy a Pablo Casals concert, LBJ flips light switches and dotes on his beagles, Nixon props his feet languidly on the Oval Office desk, and Reagan sneaks letters past his staff with oafish craftiness.
Like any faithful retainer, The Butler shows off the best of the family lore — and studiously elides any embarrassing details that might disturb the gliding arc of the (in this case, progressive) moral universe. Thus James Marsden’s JFK is a saintly family man, and Liev Schreiber’s LBJ is a son-of-a-gun whose swagger conceals a heart of gold. John Cusack hilariously overplays Richard Nixon as an evil paranoiac, paying a visit to the White House kitchen one night in a creepy and wholly improbable bid for Cecil’s support. And in the film’s most dishonest invention, Cecil resigns as head butler after he learns of Ronald Reagan’s decision to support the apartheid (but also anti-Communist) government of South Africa.