Every year, Toronto begins to take on certain themes by the festival's midpoint, and this year there were some strong, serious dramas involving characters who go it alone in life, and much of the time to their own detriment.
A sprawling historical epic charting America's modern civil rights movement, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" achieves the remarkable feat of transcending politics with a life-affirming and healing message that makes whole the idea of America. That it's also a very entertaining history lesson comes as a great surprise given the weight of its subject matter.
The film's vehicle is Cecil Gaines, loosely inspired by the Washington Post's November 2008 article "A Butler Well Served by This Election" about Eugene Allen, a White House butler and maitre d' in service of 8 presidential administrations over three-plus decades beginning in the 1950's.
**This review contains spoilers!**
In a brutal first encounter we have with Cecil as a young boy working the cotton fields of a 1920's Georgia plantation, we hear the screams of his mother being raped and later witness his father being shot to death with impunity by the owner's son. The owner--an old woman played by Vanessa Redgrave--takes the boy from the field and grooms him to work in the house, where he's taught that a room should feel empty even if he's working in it.
That notion shapes much of the rest of Cecil's life as he grows into adulthood, moving up the east coast where a merciful entrepreneur trains him in the fine crafts of bartending, serving, and anticipating the needs of his guests. Later, we find Cecil supporting his wife Gloria and their two sons through his work at a fancy Washington D.C. hotel where he is noticed and offered a job as a butler to the President of the United States. His interview is played with irony as his immediate superior informs him, "We have no place for politics here at the White House." Cecil takes to his new job with serious dedication and the film is very good in the way it appreciates some of the finer details of serving, like the way his butler heats tea and coffee cups with hot water in order to keep beverages warmer for longer.
It's 1957 and inside the Oval Office Cecil finds President Eisenhower (Robin Williams) caught in the throes of the "Little Rock Crisis". The now iconic images of the Governor of Arkansas ordering his own state's national guard to block 9 African-American students from attending their new high school--in the period after the Supreme Court struck down racist Jim Crow laws as unconstitutional--caused a national uproar and a standoff with the President, who vowed to enforce desegregation. And enforce it he did by federalizing the Arkansas National Guard, standing them down, and then sending members of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to personally escort the "Little Rock 9" into their schools.
At home, the dynamics of an average middle-class family of the period are observed, with dad working long hours and mom effectively being the President of the house. So good at disappearing in his work, we realize how it takes a toll on the Gaines family that Cecil has a way of disappearing in his home life, too. Gloria deals with it by boozing and then by boozing some more to deal with the hangovers.
If Cecil is our vehicle inside the bubble of the White House, than his eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo, the preacher in "The Help", who does a very subtle job here of making Louis a human being and not just a representation) becomes our vehicle outside of it, using his college acceptance in Tennessee as a way to demonstrate for equal rights for his people. The film does an effective job of showing how Gandhi's tactics of peaceful resistance are put into practice by both black and white students who staged the Nashville sit-ins, getting Louis arrested and incarcerated. One of the film's best sequences is a powerful visual juxtaposition showing Cecil and his co-workers working a state dinner while Louis and students are protesting essentially for the idea that hopefully one day a black person may even be able to sit or even be the headline guest at such a state dinner, instead of only serving it.
A chasm grows between father and son as Louis resents what he perceives to be either his old man's contentment or his resignation to living as a second-class citizen in a white man's world. Cecil disapproves of Louis getting messed up with what he perceives to be criminal activity. Through his college years and beyond, the cold war between the two worsens as Louis (whose character echoes the life experiences of Congressman John Lewis) takes us on a civil rights tour from Birmingham on that famous bus as a member of the Freedom Riders, to being a protege of Martin Luther King Jr., and then as a radicalized member of the "black power" movement when he joins for a time with the Black Panthers before getting back on the right path when he becomes a professor and then a Congressman himself. Through Cecil we experience the immediate fallout of the JFK assassination as well as President Lyndon Johnson's signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The film offers an expansive ensemble cast. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz are very good as Cecil's co-workers. Robin Williams and John Cusack look the least like the characters they play, but they do what only great actors can with such cameos, which is to bring a fully-realized individual to life in a very short time and for very specific reasons. I went with it because I don't think they're meant to be literal, but more as remembrances of the way regular people perceived them to be.
Williams is just right as the humble WWII General. Cusack boils Nixon down to his essence as a paranoid man uncomfortable in his own skin and lacking the common touch. James Marsden as JFK is the idea of a fresh new face. If Liev Schreiber's Lyndon Johnson seems over the top, well, YouTube some of the new recordings released a few months ago of his time in office for that hilarious conversation he had with his tailor back in Texas where he explains that he needs more space in the crotch for his junk to breathe. Liberal Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan is blasphemous to some folks, but the result is uncanny; she finally brings verve and pizazz to a woman who is only ever played by what seems to be Old Hag Casting 101. Nelson Ellis is convincing as MLK in a scene that forces Louis to begin to rethink how he views his father's role in history. And Alan Rickman is very good in a tricky cameo as Ronald Reagan at the moment when he became the first President of the 20th century to have Congress override his veto on the Anti-Apartheid Act in South Africa. It wasn't that Reagan was a racist by supporting the apartheid regime there as some folks claim; it's that he was out of touch. I think the movie plays that just right, and to Reagan's credit, the biggest applause line in the film comes from everything we know about him as a strong leader.
Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey are in top form in their leading roles, each deserving of Oscar nominations. Whitaker's Cecil is a thoughtful study in quiet perseverance. He's threatened by his son's generation because it has been ingrained in his own life experience that speaking up will kill you dead. He values sacrifice, hard work, self-reliance, doing right by your wife and providing for your family. He doesn't want or need much, just the dignity that a steady paycheck can bring. Abhorrent things happened to him as a child, yet he is a humble man who is grateful for everything he's been given and refuses to be a victim to those events.
Oprah's Gloria faces a personal evolution as notable as Cecil in its own way. I especially love the touches she gives her housewife like how she gets dressed up on Saturday nights when the living room comes alive with dancing to hits being played on t.v. variety shows, while the edges of the screen are filled with food and company, drink and smoke. Another thing about her performance I want to make a special note of is how moving it was to see the way she desires her husband. Too few films allow for middle-class female characters of a certain age to feel desire, to feel sexy, to find their husbands sexy because they actually love them!
Racism is learned behavior. It grows from subtle prejudices we may have about people who are different than we are. These things can be unlearned, and as society progresses, both Cecil and Louis evolve and begin to shed the prejudices they have towards each other by using empathy.
The trap of offering a sweeping and episodic historical film is that it might play like a laundry list of events causing the narrative to lose power. Not here. This stirring film plays like an opus to a set of fundamental American moral truths rooted in equality, and shows us how life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are often times more self-evident to those who are starving for them.
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" signals that time of year when directors become less preoccupied with making hits and more interested in making great films, and after a long and bloody spring/summer season that saw the White House getting cheerfully blown to smithereens not once but twice, here is a film that actually has reverence for the place and for what it really stands for.