Strong’s script offers not so much a plot as a row of clichés, arranged with such appalling neatness that the mind aches for something, anything, original. It is almost refreshing when the narrative occasionally swerves from bromidic NPR progressivism into something a bit nastier — as when Martin Luther King Jr. explains that he opposes the Vietnam War because “the Viet Cong don’t call us niggers,” or when Cecil equates American slavery with genocide: “America’s always turned a blind eye toward what we’ve done to our own. We’ve heard about the concentration camps; but these camps went on for 200 years right here in America.”
Even the score is hackneyed: Classical piano concertos by Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schumann fill the White House, while the Gaines family and the other black characters in the film groove to the strains of James Brown, Shorty Long, and the O’Jays. With due reverence to the Godfather of Soul, might not the real Allen family have put on a Schumann record too, once in a while?
But the past — real, imagined, and exaggerated — is beside the point. This is really a film about us. Its purpose is not to retell the stories of past generations but to retell, or rather resurrect, our own crowning triumph: the election of President Obama in 2008. For, despite its 20th-century trivia, the film’s only really nostalgic scene comes near the end, when the Gaineses throw a front-yard rally for the Obama campaign. Cecil and Gloria are radiant in their O T-shirts; their bungalow is festooned with signs, flags, and the iconic Shepard Fairey HOPE poster. Neighborhood folks chat while doling out campaign buttons, and the entire shot is bathed in the hazy glow of a midsummer twilight. It’s a loving tribute, not to Gaines or his family, but to the sheer joy of the Obama Moment — before the long march of bailouts and bad jobs numbers, before the HHS mandate, before Cairo and Benghazi, before the savagery of “Mitt Romney: Not One of Us” and the icy demurrals of Lois Lerner.
Ever since the junior senator from Illinois declared his candidacy, commentators have tried to cast Barack Obama’s rise in the context of the civil-rights movement. By instead casting not only the civil-rights movement but also the personal story of Cecil Gaines in the context of Barack Obama, Daniels validates the president’s first campaign, which encouraged followers of all races to project their own struggles and aspirations onto a uniquely malleable, because virtually unknown, candidate. His would be the victory to finally lay to rest the crushing racial guilt, the specter of debts unpaid, that still held the white Left in paralyzed fascination. As Obama himself declares at the film’s end, in an excerpt from his 2008 victory speech: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of democracy, tonight is your answer.”
Like the White House staff on the morning of Inauguration Day, scrambling to clear out the old president’s furnishings and make way for the new, The Butler scurries through half a century of American history, hastily concealing stains, polishing old curios, and carefully arranging the past to more properly reflect the supreme triumph of the present.
But already that present, too, is past. The fifth year of the Obama presidency slogs on; but the magic sought by Lee Daniels, the magic of the Obama Moment, is irretrievably gone, as much a historical artifact as Jackie’s pillbox hat, Nixon’s tape recorders, or LBJ’s drawl.
— Will Allen is an editorial intern at National Review.