Much has been said in conservative circles regarding the bias of the film The Butler, which portrays the civil rights movement and the racial progress of 20th century America through the eyes of a White House butler named Cecil Gaines. While it is true that the film plays into many liberal myths about the era, there is also plenty of merit to be found here.
I’ll start with the bad. The true tragedy of the film is its failure to show the nuance of presidential politics with regards to civil rights issues. Instead, the conventional wisdom about each president is often repeated unquestioningly. President Eisenhower – portrayed unconvincingly by Robin Williams – though initially reluctant to do so, sends federal troops to the South to support the rights of blacks to vote. Sadly, the film fails to mention that Eisenhower also signed the 1957 Civil Rights Act.
The portrayal of the Kennedys is an improvement. JFK is channeled brilliantly by James Marsden. His perspective on civil rights seems to be fairly accurate, if personalized for Gaines’ story. Where the film misfires, in my opinion, is where it concerns the Kennedy family dynamics. The depiction is very Camelot — the marriage appears strong. An accurate “behind the scenes” look would show the serial adultery that John engaged in. But he is one of Cecil’s heroes and is not shown in the slightest bad light.
Liev Schreiber practically is Lyndon Johnson: looks, voice, mannerisms, everything. Johnson’s racial epithets are present early, but he has an apparent – though unexplained – change of heart. However, the film neglects to document the cynically political motives for Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
On the other hand, Nixon is completely politically motivated. He is shown as vice-president and then again as president, but appears in no scene that does not play into either his hopes for political gain or his narcissism. TThese are aspects of Nixon, to be sure, but there is more to him than that. I must note that while John Cusack looks nothing like Richard Nixon, he can speak in a scarily similar way.
I had my doubts about Alan Rickman playing Ronald Reagan (the film skips Ford and Carter). Rickman’s voice is too deep, but otherwise he is very convincing. Jane Fonda is a not-quite-happy-enough Nancy Reagan, but overall, not bad.
The real problems here are the unstated implications.
Reagan declines to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa. There is no mention of his reasoning, which had nothing to do with his position on apartheid and everything to do with the fact that South Africa was a nuclear power on our side of the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Nancy invites Cecil and his wife to a White House dinner – the first they’ve been too. Accurate, but in the film Cecil interprets this simply as a desire on her part to improve the president’s image.
The real-life Cecil Gaines (actually named Eugene Allen) reportedly had pictures of President and Mrs. Reagan hanging in his living room. Seeing as the film depicted MLK, it would have been nice to show Reagan signing the law making the civil rights leader’s birthday a federal holiday. Happily, however, the film does make mention of the fact that Reagan liked to send money to Americans who wrote to him about their financial difficulties.
So much for the wanting portrayal of the presidents. Daniels knows how to shoot and edit a film. The production quality is high, the screenplay is solid. With two exceptions, the acting is terrific from a veteran cast: Forest Whitaker, Terrance Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and others all do an admirable job. Aside from the already mentioned Williams as Eisenhower, the only person miscast was Oprah Winfrey — for the simple reason that she can’t be seen as anyone but Oprah. She is not Gloria Gaines; she’s Oprah, who just happens to be married to Cecil Gaines.
Further positives include the way in which the relationship between Cecil and his son Louis is a microcosm of a debate about how blacks should work to advance in post-slavery America. Cecil is hard-working and dignified, changing the minds of those around him by his character, much in the way advocated by Booker T. Washington. This is shown positively. Louis goes to college, gets involved with politics groups and participates in demonstrations. Cecil is passive; Louis is active. They clash and even become estranged for a time because of this disagreement.
Ultimately, however, Cecil and Louis learn not to dismiss completely where the other is coming from. And though at one point Louis joins the Black Panthers, their violent methods and uncouth manners are portrayed accurately and in a negative light.
Finally, the ending of the film does include a bit of Barack Obama, but rather than bashing America for her faults, in the included video he praises America for her achievements.
It’s a shame that one of the first Hollywood films to portray the civil rights movement didn’t cut through some of the liberal myths perpetuated about the era. Still, The Butler does an admirable job showing how that history affected individual families.
It also reminds us how far we’ve come as a country – something that shouldn’t be forgotten.
That, at least, we can applaud.