Earlier this year, in the latest film from director Olivier Assayas, Something In The Air, a bunch of teenage radicals in the late 1960s spend a lot of time talking about the proper way to be down for the struggle. At one point one of them announces that revolutionary thought in film requires a "revolutionary syntax" (aka challenging, avant-garde qualities and rule-breaking filmmaking style). But Lee Daniels' latest, The Butler, just pulled a neat trick: turning the social-justice-minded, all-star, mainstream Hollywood movie on its head by simply allowing its subject the chance to really be the subject. It's a film about America at the time of the Civil Rights Movement and, unlike in comfort-food fantasies like The Help or Mississippi Burning, there's not one enlightened, rescue-minded white person around to steal the spotlight.
The fictionalized life of White House butler Eugene Allen -- here named "Cecil Gaines" to allow for plenty of creative license, making it a film about a man somewhat like Allen, not a biopic -- becomes the focus of a decades-long survey of racism and social change in the United States. As the soft-spoken man witnessing history from inside the home of a succession of Presidents, Forrest Whitaker keeps still in a quiet performance as a huge cast impersonates historical figures or becomes avatars for African-American self-determination. As one of Gaines' sons, David Oyelowo is by turns a Freedom Rider, a Black Panther, an anti-Apartheid protestor and a politician, allowing the movie a chance to touch on those moments in black history as its protagonist observes it all from within a service position to powerful white people. In one especially striking and movingly edited sequence, Oyelowo and his fellow Freedom Riders attempt to integrate a Woolworth's lunch counter as Whitaker and his fellow employees (Cuba Gooding, Lenny Kravitz) serve an elegant White House dinner party, the action in both locations mirroring each other. That this son never existed in real life is irrelevant; the movie has bases to cover and requires a proxy. Yes, it will be on the test.
Meanwhile, as Gaines' troubled wife, Oprah Winfrey, already fully aware of how to steal scenes from her moment in The Color Purple, gets a big chance to do it all again by playing far against type. She smokes, dabbles in alcoholism, adultery, violence, uses racial slurs and calls children ugly before pulling herself up and out. She's the much less pathological echo of the domestic horror in Daniels' Precious and both Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong are determined to provide her with the kind of softer landing and redemption the characters in that earlier film were denied.
Audiences with any familiarity with the 20th century history of social justice in the United States won't learn anything new. All the expected historical events, laws, lynchings, beatings and assassinations march past. It's as basic a primer as the movies can provide. But the film's insistence on black characters controlling the narrative separates it from the pack. Before The Butler is over, it has plainly stated an idea that The Help plain forgot: that black domestic workers actively defied white-generated stereotypes of black trustworthiness and work ethics, that their very existence in white society was subversive to the status quo. It's 2013, five years after the election of the first African-American President, and that still feels pretty revolutionary.