'The Butler': Good but Falls Short of Great

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

(The Root) — Going out to the latest Big Black Movie has been political for a long time. We don't like how we are portrayed in film, so black people show up en masse at worthy opening nights. We want to reward film investors who show us doing more than just twerkin' and jerkin'. We are often excluded from history, so we support those who tell our stories.  


These are excellent reasons to go see Lee Daniels' The Butler.

But if you are looking for a film to push the culture forward, take you to a new place, leave you with an unexpected taste in your mouth — for a transformative experience that forever alters the nation's cultural DNA — Lee Daniels' The Butler ain't it.

Not that the premise of the story — the true story of Eugene Allen, a black man who served as butler to eight different U.S. presidents — is not powerful. And Forest Whitaker does what he can in the title role of Cecil Gaines. Oprah Winfrey, playing the butler's wife, Gloria, far from embarrasses herself.

But what should have been a powerful story about one black man's intimate relationship with power chokes on the struggle to give voice to "millions of black strivers" and tips toward schmaltz. The all-star cast refuses to dim its lights in service of the humble butler's story.

Not all of the A-list actors overdo it. As the Gaines' lascivious neighbor, Terrence Howard plays his usual greasy, low-down, dirty-dog role to perfection. Mariah Carey melts into the role of Gaines' sharecropper mom. Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. strike the right tone as the butler's White House colleagues.

I'm talking about Jane Fonda and Robin Williams hamming it up as Nancy Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack and Liev Schreiber playing Saturday Night Live versions of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. Nelsan Ellis plays a fine Martin Luther King Jr., but he is so good as the flaming gay medium on HBO's True Blood, his MLK portrayal is more distracting than anything.


Then, of course, there is the incandescent Ms. Oprah Winfrey herself, who is funny, flawed and human, and a delight to watch. She tells her husband, referring to his job serving the president, "I don't care what goes on in that. House. I care about what goes on in this. House." It is great to see her back on the big screen, so funny and loose with her grammar and her body.

But that also means that she (and the rest of the stars) takes up all the oxygen in the movie theater. There is no room for our quiet, sainted butler to breathe.


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. 


Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter