If Birth of a Nation was, according to Woodrow Wilson, “history written with lightning,” Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a less overtly racist, but equally absurd sputtering of ineptitude, is the past scrawled in crayon. “About” the civil rights era in the same way Family Circus is about the trials and tribulations of modern family life, Lee Daniels’ latest exercise in lead pipes to the temple plays less like an exploration of pain and promise, and more like the fevered dream of a desperate filmmaker trying to ass-cram every last historical highlight of the past half-century. It’s Forrest Gump by way of The Remains of the Day, only with less dutiful butler and more oblivious retard. Inevitably, the entire exercise plays exactly as one would expect – so righteously well-meaning that it all but performs soft-shoe for the obligatory Nobel Prize. A booming, cannon-scored act of war against subtlety, nuance, and any pretense of art, The Butler is also that most appalling of cinematic crimes: the easily digestible mound of palatable excrement that risks so little in its drive to flatter and reassure that an Oprah appearance would not have been beneath its dignity. Unless….oh, fuck.
But don’t take my word for it. Instead of some long, dull slog of a review that finds me consulting the thesaurus for every last synonym of crap, we’ll let the players themselves tell the tale. Behold, the oral history of The Butler, the way Sapphire would have wanted it.
Cecil Gaines: Growin’ up in Macon, Georgia wasn’t easy. I picked cotton alongside my daddy, and though we wasn’t exactly slaves, we was sharecroppers, which was just as bad. We had an evil white man that ran the place, and I knew he was evil cause he spent the entirety of his screen time rapin’ my momma and squintin’ his eyes a lot, like his dial only went from hatin’ to hatin’ more. When my daddy finally stood up to him, he got shot for his trouble, which drove my momma crazy, which was bad cause she was Mariah Carey and we never did hear her sing. But I left Georgia soon after, makin’ my way from North Carolina to Washington, D.C. in the cinema’s fastest rise to prominence since Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer. But I was taught to serve, taught by the worst white folks you ever did see, and while the nation was changin’ around me, I was learnin’ how to stuff away all my pride and know-how so them crackers could have their fuckin’ martinis.
Hattie Pearl: It’s true. I’m Mariah Carey. Thanks again, Mr. Daniels!
Annabeth Westfall: Yes, Cecil worked for me in the early days. But nevermind all that. I’m Vanessa Fucking Redgrave, and I know this ain’t enough screen time for a goddamn Oscar nomination. You think I did this shit because I admired the script?
Cecil Gaines: Pretty soon I had a choice gig at the cushiest hotel in D.C., and who knows, maybe I’d be noticed by some White House employee who frequents the city’s establishments in search of promising black butlers. After working for about five minutes or so, I’ll be damned if that White House guy didn’t show up at last. And I knew he’d pick me, because I was so dignified and stiff-upper-lipped when those racist Senators were sitting around talking about lynching Earl Warren. Why, I didn’t break a sweat. Just like I was taught.
White House Employee: It’s true. He was one cool customer. Took it all in and didn’t raise a fist or anything. I knew he’d be a perfect fit for the Eisenhower White House.
Racist Senator: Fuck, man, I sure was racist. Bared my teeth and growled like, just to let ‘em know I meant bidness. Didn’t know it then, but know it now: racism bad, y’all.
Cecil Gaines: So I got the job at the White House. It was a step up, no question, but on account of my race, I didn’t make as much as the white butlers. Didn’t see any white butlers, though, and just to make sure y’all knew I was pissed, I made sure to mention the pay disparity no less than a dozen times. Why, I even went before the man who hired me, just to show that he stayed a racist the whole damn time. A man got to make sure everyone out there understand how even in the people’s house, whites and blacks were treated different. But I’ll show them. Shit, I might even bring it up one last time right before I retire just so maybe I can spark a laugh or two amongst y’all. Cause I know you white folks like to see us black folk get back at y’all on the screen. Not in your own lives, no, cause that would be wrong.
White House Employee: Fuck yeah, he got me good. I remember the eighth or ninth time he came in to complain, and I just sat there readin’ the paper like I was all disinterested and shit. Even threw in a jab at Martin Luther King. But yeah, he got me back. I sure looked like a dope!
Gloria Gaines: Cecil, bless his heart, never let me see the pain. Which was fine, because I’m Oprah and I know you ain’t gonna make it about you. But I drank for the both of us, and despite yellin’ and pleadin’, he never did tell any secrets. Just like a man.
Cecil Gaines: But I sure did love the Eisenhower years. Dwight was a sweet old man, telling stories, painting, and asking me about my children. He even looked in my eyes once, when he was wonderin’ whether or not he should send federal troops to Little Rock. He saw my pain, my tears, and my desire for justice, and he made his call. The courage of that man. For awhile, he was the greatest white man I ever knew. I’ll never forget him, especially since he looked and sounded like that Robin Williams fella. But he all right in my book. A friend forever.
President Eisenhower: Who?
Cecil Gaines: Then this Kennedy fella got elected. All us butlers thought he was too smooth for his own good, but you just knew he loved black people. Shit, his own daughter told me so while I read her a story. Jack was a good man. I may have doubted him for a time, but I remember when he was watchin’ the television and all those fire hoses and dogs and kids dyin’? He was pissed. As pissed as any white man I ever saw. Told me how the marches and sit-ins and all that changed his brother’s heart. Changed his heart, too. I just wanted to serve, but before I could leave, he made a point of stoppin’ me cold, staring into my soul, and all but sayin’ I was the inspiration for some law he wanted to get passed. Was gonna get right to it as soon as he got back from Texas. He’d do it now, dammit, but he’d have all the time in the world. Made me feel like the only man alive.
President Kennedy: You, uh, say I had a butlah?
Louis Gaines: Dad was clueless. Served like a chump, while the nation burned. Now I know I didn’t actually exist, but every damn script has to have a father/son conflict or ain’t nobody gonna believe it. So while I pretend protested and pretend got shot at on Freedom Rides, daddy told me I was a disrespectful bum and to get out of his house with my damn girlfriend. And no I can’t borrow any money! He hated me so, but I never was, so maybe that’s okay. I’m fine with being the stand-in for the counterculture, but even I’m not sure how I got around. Shit, man, I was at a Malcolm X rally, the famed Woolworth’s counter, the founding of the Black Panthers, and even sitting on MLK’s bed right before he got killed. I was everywhere. That shit so unbelievable, I guess it makes sense they’d have to invent my ass.
Cecil Gaines: I loved my boy, and it took me a lifetime to understand it. Had he ever actually existed, I’d give him a hug right now. Still, despite the problems at home, I had to serve. Especially right after the assassination. When Jackie just sat there, crying her eyes out, still in her bloody dress, I knew I had to do something. So I told her she should stay in that dress and show the world what they done.
Jackie Kennedy: My ass, that shit was my idea.
Gloria Gaines: Still Oprah.
Cecil Gaines: Now Mr. Johnson in the White House. He meaner than Jack, but he seem like he wants to do the right thing. But that motherfucker crazy. Talks on the toilet. Like, all the time. Shits more than anything else, or just sits there petting his dogs. Now I know Liev Schreiber about as much like LBJ as Lee Daniels like a real director, but he yells a lot, so maybe no one will notice. He gave me cuff links and asked about my daddy, so I know he cared. Just had a different way of showing it.
President Johnson: That sumbitch lyin’ his pecker off.
Charlie Gaines: Now I’m the other son, the good one, the one who goes to Vietnam. Movie says I died, but I did no such thing. I’m still here this very day! But I had to go, because we know no dry eye be left after the soldiers done come to the door with news of my death. I was daddy’s hope, now I’m dead. Only I’m still alive. Whatever, I just want to know why, if I died in 1973, Oprah be dancin’ all over the living room like disco already bigger than Jesus.
Gloria Gaines: Mo’Nique got to dance in Lee’s last one, so it my turn. And if Oprah say disco take the nation by storm in 1973, disco take the nation by storm. I’ll release Star Wars right the fuck now if I want to.
Cecil Gaines: I was hurt by the loss of my son, but I’d feel good once I knew he was alive again. No time, no how. I had Mr. Nixon to serve. Now this Cusack dude may as well be some fuckin’ alien for all the shit he look like the President, but you take your bitchin’ to Lee. He only here to make racist remarks, put up his feet, and sob like a baby when the end is near. But even he cared in the end. Always asking about how I felt, what I wanted, and what I needed. Things would have been great had it not all come apart. Not sure what it is he’s supposed to have done, but he done all right by me.
President Nixon: Fuck, dammit. Fuck! I fucking resigned just to get away from that cocksucker.
Louis Gaines: After just missing getting killed in a Black Panther raid, I decided to run for Congress or some shit. Who knows. I wasn’t there to see it. Just make up any shit you want.
Cecil Gaines: Now after seeing that guy they got for Nixon, I was scared shitless of the Carter years. Ford was easy to skip, cause who remembers that shit anyway? But hell, they left the whole thing out. Four years gone! I guess a montage of clichés from the time is okay, but I rubbed my hands raw waiting for Robert DeNiro or some shit to show up as Jimmy boy. Oh well. We all remember the malaise thing, gas lines, and sweaters in the Oval Office. Not much else to say.
Gloria Gaines: I’m getting’ so old by this point. Ain’t a thing left for me to do but stoop low, pack on the aging makeup, add an oxygen machine, and wait for Oscar. He’ll come callin’ this time or it’s someone’s ass.
Louis Gaines: Makes sense I get all involved in South Africa about now. How else I gonna piss off my pop and stay topical? You know those spinning movie newspapers that reveal some big headline? Great image, right? Repeat that shit 300 times and that’s this piece of crap.
Cecil Gaines: Mr. Reagan show up next, and he wasn’t all that bad. Sure, he played like he missing a chromosome or two, but they say that ain’t so far from the truth. But Jane Fonda as Nancy? Lord almighty, like casting Bill Ayers as Abe Lincoln. She just there to get y’all whispering that it’s Jane Fonda on the screen, so I get it. But I had some good talks with Mr. Reagan. He pretty stubborn about no sanctions against Apartheid, but that just so he can sit me down later and say that he was dead wrong. Wrong side of history, what he say. But only I knew the real man. He used to give me envelopes full of money for the poor people who wrote him, even though he the one who done turned off their heat himself. But we all sinners. He tried, and in the end, I saw his heart. It was full. He even invited me to a state dinner as a guest!
President Reagan: Umm, what?
Cecil Gaines: So it was time to retire, but only after I singlehandedly got every White House butler a raise. Having seen it all, all that was left to me was to watch Oprah die, Obama get elected, and reconcile with my son. A life’s work, complete. At the right hand of history, leading by example, with a quiet dignity all my own. I inspired, taught, and pushed, ever so gently, for a change that, while held up for a time, just had to come. I took care of my family, at least those I didn’t throw out on the street, and despite the tears, I can honestly say that I did my duty as a man and an American. From Macon to the White House. A journey that any man can look to with pride. After all, I was there! Me, Cecil Gaines!
Lee Daniels: Cecil Gaines is a composite character, based loosely on Eugene Allen. All scenes, conversations, connections, and narrative threads are wholly the invention of the director and screenwriter. But I’m dedicating this shit to all those who fought and died in the Civil Rights Movement anyway.