‘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.
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.