August 16, 2013
Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in "Lee Daniels' The Butler." (Anne Marie Fox/The Weinstein Company via Associated Press )
Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” (Anne Marie Fox/The Weinstein Company via Associated Press )

Lee Daniels’ The Butler” got off on the wrong foot with me. It opens with a scene of horrific violence in which a Simon Legree character oozing clichéd meanness runs amok in a cotton field, of all places. The scene is off-putting, not because something like that could not have happened in 1920s Georgia, but because it suggests that a movie lacking all subtlety is on its way. Good thing it’s a feint. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is a very good movie indeed.

The butler himself, as everyone must know by now, is a composite of White House butlers played by the remarkable Forest Whitaker. He is the fictional Cecil Gaines, a character based on Eugene Allen, an actual White House butler chronicled by Will Haygood in a 2008 Washington Post article. As Haygood wrote, Allen “saw eight presidential administrations come and go.…” He was a black man in a very white house.

In the White House, Gaines is the quintessential “colored man” of old. He is silent and deferential. Momentous decisions regarding his people, African Americans, are being made as he serves coffee. Rarely is he asked his opinion; rarely is he even noticed. Whitaker conveys his concern, his interest and his pain with the minutest change of expression. His is a bravura performance.

And yet when he is in the presence of presidents and their aides, he is not a black man serving whites, he is a colorless butler. A white butler would act no differently. A white butler would honor the admonition of a supervisor: “The room should feel empty when you’re in it.” Surely, a white butler would empty the room just the same. To serve is to serve. You keep your mouth shut.

Of course, serving — servility — takes on a different resonance for a black man. He is of a race brought to America to serve, first as slaves, then peonage and then menial labor. For the time, Gaines has one of the best jobs a black man can get — and he is grateful, oh so grateful. He not only knows his place, he values it.

Oddly, though, what’s missing from this movie is Washington itself. Gaines is a colorless butler within the White House, but he is a black man outside of it. Yet we see little of Jim Crow Washington, of department stores where blacks could buy clothes but not try them on, of drug stores where blacks could buy medicine but not sit at the lunch counter, of segregated cab companies and bar associations and a police force as white as North Dakota’s in a city on its way to a black majority. We don’t see racial covenants on houses and golf courses where the only blacks have bags on their shoulders or city swimming pools where the only swimmers are white. We see nothing of the meanness of a Washington of not all that long ago.

Lee Daniels made his choices. He shows us the interior life of Cecil Gaines, but very little of his exterior one. After establishing that Gaines was formed by racist brutality, Daniels uses Gaines as a black everyman to chronicle the civil rights movement as it was shaped within the White House by presidents and out on the street by enormously courageous black (and white) activists, like one of his two sons. (The other conveniently joins the Vietnam-era Army.) Daniels tells his story well. He just could have told it better.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post.