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The Butler Did It

Turned a good story, that is, into a bad movie.

Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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Daniels and his screenwriter Danny Strong have taken the true story of White House butler Eugene Allen and turned it into a historical pageant about the struggle for civil rights, in which one man—the butler, here named Cecil Gaines—represents the notion of accommodating the white majority while another embodies confrontation. Because of this movie’s almost unimaginable vulgarity, Gaines’s antagonist is—natch—his own son, Louis.

Cecil (Forest Whitaker) is taught by life to go along with the whims and desires of white people. As a boy in 1920s Georgia, he watches his mother get raped and his father shot by the crazy owner of the land on which they are sharecropping. He is then brought into the owner’s home—as a bizarre act of kindness—to learn how to serve the man who killed his father.

He flees as a teenager and, starving, breaks into a hotel to get food. Instead of getting arrested, Cecil is taken under the wing of a kindly worker (Clarence Williams III, the terrific and tragically underused onetime star of The Mod Squad), who teaches him more about being a servant and then gets him a job at a Washington hotel. He does so well as an invisible, uncontroversial, unchallenging presence that he’s spotted by a White House household executive and hired to work as a butler at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Every time Cecil walks into the Oval Office, he overhears a snatch of conversation about Little Rock, or Selma, or Birmingham; John F. Kennedy informs Cecil that his heart has changed, while Ronald Reagan (in the movie’s most out-and-out ludicrous scene) says to him, “The whole civil-rights thing—sometimes I think I’m just wrong.” Cecil gives away nothing, even though he lives through everything.

Meanwhile, Cecil’s son Louis desegregates a lunch counter, becomes a Freedom Rider, is with Martin Luther King at the motel in Memphis, becomes a Black Panther, leaves the Black Panthers, becomes a college professor, runs for Congress and loses, becomes an activist, and becomes a congressman. And all he does, throughout the movie, is insult Cecil.

This makes no sense dramatically. Cecil is a kind man and a good father, and Whitaker, in a beautiful performance, gives him a dignified gravity at all times. The abuse Cecil suffers from his son, and his son’s utter lack of respect for his worthy father, is inexplicable if you are interested in these people as characters who might actually behave the way real people do. Daniels and Strong are not. They finally show some disapproval for Louis when he comes home after seven years and enrages Cecil by calling Sidney Poitier an Uncle Tom. But the scene is utterly unbelievable. 

There are some good scenes along the way, just so long as they don’t involve Louis or the White House. The domestic discord between Cecil and his wife Gloria (Winfrey) is sad and powerful, and the depiction of middle-class black life in Washington in the 1950s and ’60s is rich and vivid. They are the only moments in the movie in which Daniels stops ramming his theme down our throats, and they come as a great relief.

But what do I know, compared to Daniels? He’s become a brand name after only five films because of his caricaturish view of the world. And me? Is this part of the magazine called John Podhoretz’s The Movie Review? No, it isn’t. Case closed. If this review were a movie directed by Lee Daniels, it would be called Lee Daniels’ Lee Daniels Wins

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.

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