There's a scene about halfway through Lee Daniel's "The Butler" that is perfect.
African-American White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) asks his boss, Mr. Warner, for equal pay for African American staff. They are paid less than white staff, he complains. The audience has been watching Cecil Gaines for a while now, and we know he is an admirable man. He certainly deserves equal pay.
Warner tells Gaines that if he is not happy with his salary, he can go work someplace else.
Gaines is trapped in an invisible prison of white supremacy, and he knows it. Whitaker's face shows all the agony of that moment. He quietly leaves Warner's office.
Forest Whitaker is utterly brilliant in this scene, as he is in the rest of this choppy, heavy-handed, misguided film.
That scene is worth the entire rest of the film "The Butler." That scene has everything the rest of the film lacks: subtlety, intelligence, and faith in its audience.
Otherwise, "The Butler" is Civil Rights for Dummies plus an overload of stunt casting.
"The Butler" tells the story of Cecil Gaines, an African American White House butler. The movie tells us it wants us to pay attention to this humble, working class man. The movie depicts none other than Martin Luther King Jr, right before his assassination, delivering a speech on the importance of domestic workers.
But the movie belies its own message. "The Butler" doesn't have faith in its audience. It believes that we won't pay attention to this humble, admirable butler. So the film dumps one big Hollywood star and tabloid celebrity after another in small roles, and the film beats us over the head with a dumbed-down, sensationalized, hate-whitey version of Civil Rights.
Stunt casting: Mariah Carey is on screen for about two minutes as Cecil's mother, and Vanessa Redgrave is on screen for about three minutes as his first employer. The casting of the presidents Cecil worked for is flagrantly weird. It's as if the movie wants to set the audience abuzz over why this or that actor was chosen. John Cusak as Richard Nixon? Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan?? Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower??? Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan???? Did the people who cast this film take any of it seriously? James Marsden, though, is fine as JFK.
Oprah Winfrey plays Cecil's wife, Gloria. Oprah gives a fine performance. The problem is, she is Oprah Winfrey, and her presence as a celebrity never left my mind as I was watching her. Rather than being moved by the plot, my mind wandered. I thought about her recent public scandals, the Swiss purse incident, and calling Trayvon Martin a modern Emmet Till. I thought about her boyfriend Steadman. I wondered why he has never married Oprah. Again, Oprah's performance was spot on, but the script was not compelling enough to allow me willing suspension of disbelief.
The film's dumbed down version of Civil Rights is aesthetically and historically criminal. In the first five minutes of the movie, the film depicts two African Americans lynched together beside an American flag. They remain on screen for quite a while. The film returns to the image. A black woman is raped by a white man. Again, weird casting: Alex Pettyfer, one of the most handsome men in the world, is the rapist. Why? Then a black man is killed. The n word is tossed around liberally. Crosses are scary – the Klan burns one and attacks a freedom rider bus. The film eventually states, in so many words, that America was a "concentration camp" for African Americans for hundreds of years, worse than what the Nazis did to the Jews.
All the whites on screen are rich and powerful. All the blacks, including the Black Panthers, are good, innocent, humble, hard-working, harmless. The Civil Rights movement is all but exclusively black.
This just isn't true. Comparing the Holocaust to slavery and Jim Crow isn't accurate. The Black Panthers did some very bad things, including to their own members. Thousands were lynched, not millions, thousands of those lynched were white. The largest mass lynching in America was of Italian immigrants; Leo Frank was lynched for being a Jew.
African Americans made up roughly ten percent of the population; had whites not been part of the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans could never have achieved what they did. The film insists that the Civil Rights Movement was inspired by a "brown man," Gandhi. But in fact Gandhi was inspired by Tolstoy, Thoreau, Christ, and the Bhagavad Gita. The film alludes briefly to Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, but does not name them. The film refers to these Jewish Civil Rights martyrs only to cynically dismiss their sacrifice. Americans only care about dead whites, the film says. If that were true, the Civil Rights Struggle would not have achieved what it did. Jim Zwerg, a white man, endured a horrible beating on one freedom ride because he, like many Civil Rights heroes, was inspired by the Judeo-Christian tradition.
I've lived in the Indian Subcontinent, where the religiously mandated caste system, for millennia, has doomed Untouchables to lives in Hell. I lived in Africa, where the slave trade still flourishes. From a world perspective, the United States is not remarkable because it had slavery and Jim Crow. From a world perspective, the United States is remarkable because it produced the Abolitionists, John Brown, martyrs like Goodman and Schwerner and Viola Liuzzo and heroes like Jim Zwerg and Rabbi Heschel. "The Butler" presents an unbelievable conundrum – a country populated exclusively by evil, rich white supremacists somehow magically changed in 2008 and elected an African American president and presto changeo everything was better for black people.