Lee Daniels' The Butler
The film covers a long period of time, and it attempts to give vignettes from Cecil's life a parabolic significance—so its use of montage is fitting. Daniels avoids the potential trappings of montage editing by making sure that the passage of time never diminishes the unifying, sobering conflict and tension. Because it is coupled with Whitaker's powerhouse performance, the film doesn't lose much to this more formally meditative approach.
It also helps that Winfrey, who must have one of the hardest acting jobs in the world trying to convince her audience that she's not Oprah, comes close to accomplishing just that as the sometimes-troubled mother often caught between the father and son. Whitaker might have our attention in the White House, but during intriguing scenes at home—where the Gaines family has achieved a private space with the possibility of extended leisure—Winfrey's performance avoids any distracting self-importance.
This issue of self-importance is precisely a threatening problem because the film's subject is so important—to even flirt with cheapening it is especially discomforting. Cecil is told early in his life that "the room should feel empty when you're in it," a statement with a dehumanizing slant, coming from the whites who say it. But Cecil is subversive by successfully enacting a self-forgetting service characterized by his increasing sense of freedom. The love, care, and selflessness he devotes to his craft makes him one of the most respected and recognizable figures in one of the most power-hungry settings in the world. And when necessary, some of the best directors know how to empty their films of themselves in just this manner.
A significant voiceover in the film says that there are wrong ways to rid darkness among our people and power structures: "only light can do that." Butler's light shines brightest when it employs the classic element of montage theory—that by juxtaposing two images, you can create a third meaning—in a way that slowly reveals the at-bottom pursuit of both the father and the son to restore perception.
Racism is damningly disorienting because of its destructive insensitivity to what it means to be human. Only the light of truth—courageously shined in the particular ways we're called to illuminate—can bring us to our senses. And (though at times in spite of itself) Butler serves up some welcome doses of radiant humanity.
The Butler depicts scenes of racially motivated violence. While not graphic, one early scene features the disturbing brutality of a rape and murder. Two scenes show two dead, hanged men. Some thematic sexual material features proposition for sex and an allusion to an affair. The film also features the repeated usage of derogatory terms for African-Americans, a handful of religious profanities, and two f-words.