‘The Butler’: Good but Falls Short of Great

Lee Daniels' new film groans under the weight of great black expectations.

Forest Whitaker stars in Lee Daniels' The Butler (screenshot from movie trailer on YouTube)

The butler’s story is also subtext to the relationship with his rebellious son, Louis, played by David Oyelowo, a freedom fighter who, like Forest Gump, finds himself at the center of every major movement in black history. “We are trying to change a nation’s consciousness!” the butler’s son says, in the kind of leaden language that historians would use to describe their actions 50 years later.

While dodging Molotov cocktails, spit hurled across lunch counters and police water hoses, Louis seems ashamed of his father’s work as a House Negro. At one point he and his freedom-riding, long-armpit-haired girlfriend, Carol (Yaya Alafia), come for dinner. (I hope that Alafia’s steady performance here and her star turn in the independent film Big Words mean she is going to get more work.)

When Louis belittles his father’s job after dinner, Oprah stops him with a heavy, open-handed slap. “Everything you are, everything you have, is because of that butler,” she thunders. “Now take this low-class bitch out of my house.”

I was feeling that much-needed slap at the black police embarrassed to see black people playing maids and slaves. It is a necessary part of our history and worthy of the silver screen. As Martin Luther King’s character tells Louis right before he is assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., being a butler is “subversive, not subservient.”

I was hoping that the film would explore that theme more and spend less time on the civil rights movement (which deserves its own movie). Gaines speaks of the two faces he shows: one to the boss, and one to everyone else. We never see that other face. We only see him serving the White House or serving his ungrateful family and friends. How does he exercise his own agency and power on a daily basis? How is he flawed? How is he human?

A tighter focus on the interior life of Gaines could have been a valuable window on race, history and what it means to serve this country. But if you are looking for a nice family night out, to be reminded of the pure evil of Southern white people and the sainted dignity in the Black Struggle, by all means go see Lee Daniel’s The Butler. As the curator Thelma Golden once said of black romantic art: It was … nice.

Editor’s note: For another perspective on Lee Daniels’ The Butler, read Marita Golden’s essay “What ‘The Butler’ Gets Right.”

Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.