Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, Terrence Howard, Alan Rickman, Melissa Leo, Minka Kelly, with John Cusack, Jane Fonda, and Robin Williams
Written By: Danny Strong (based on the article A Butler Well Served by This Election by Will Haygood)
Directed By: Lee Daniels
Lee Daniels’ The Butler (and Lee Daniels must be emphasized to avoid a lawsuit) is the type of movie that’s tailor-made to secure Oscar nominations. It’s an all-encompassing civil rights epic featuring the “true” story of the White House’s head butler, who served eight presidents during his 34-year tenure. Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) had a front row seat to American history, and if the movie is to be believed, a pivotal role in effecting the civil rights movement.
Just how much of this is true? Well, for one Cecil Gaines did not exist. The character is based on the real-life Eugene Allen, so take that for what it’s worth. Regardless, even if the story from which the film is derived is only partially factual, it doesn’t prevent the movie from being emotionally effecting. In 2013, it’s socially responsible to convey the harrowing plight of African Americans in this country, whom were treated like second-class citizens long after the abolishment of slavery. Their gradual shift to equality and the change in mindset of the American public over the years is one of the more interesting aspects of the film.
Forest Whitaker is absolutely fantastic in the titular role. He’s all but guaranteed a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of Gaines, even if the not-so-subtle film isn’t among the Best Picture nominees. In the hands of a more intimate director (this would have been an ideal movie for Spielberg), The Butler (which I’ll now refer to as such for the sake of brevity, please don’t sue me) could have been a striking character study interspersed with a more in-depth depiction of American politics. Instead, there’s a certain generic feel-goodness to the proceedings. Director Lee Daniels (Precious) and writer Danny Strong are more interested in cramming in as much of history’s greatest moments as possible. Regardless, this is such a fascinating and powerful story that even if this isn’t the best possible version of it, The Butler is undeniably a good film.
A good portion of the movie focuses on Cecil’s family life, in particularly Louis Gaines (David Oyeolowo), his bitter son who is enraged about the treatment of his people and would eventually join the Black Panther movement. There’s a juxtaposition between Cecil’s strong yet subservient point-of-view that blacks must work hard to provide for their families and survive in this world, as opposed to Louis’s temperament that his people are being mistreated, and must do whatever it takes to change that. In addition to a history lesson, we get a father/son drama, with the rift that their conflicting outlook causes on their relationship. One of the most compelling scenes in the film features a montage of Louis and other radicals refusing to leave the white section of a diner while Cecil nobly serves politicians without complaint. He is told never to react to any conversation going on, “act like the room is empty”, a superior tells him. This generational contrast is an eye-opening look at an evolving mindset among African Americans.
Oprah Winfrey hasn’t acted in a film in fifteen years, but clearly hasn’t forgotten the craft as she’s exceptional as Cecil’s loving but frustrated wife Gloria. His full-time job at the White House leaves him very little time in his own home, to which Gloria tells him “I don’t care what goes on at that house, I care about what’s going on in this house.” Having less time to spend with his own children, an engaging scene shows Cecil looking after a young Caroline Kennedy as she asks him why the KKK attacked the Freedom Riders. Unbeknownst to Cecil, Louis was on that Freedom Bus.
A slew of famous actors appear in cameo roles portraying various Commander-in-Chief’s. While their presences are distracting, it’s also fun in a “hey, look who it is!” kind of way. Among them are Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Schreiber gives the funniest portrayal as Johnson, who would address his staff while sitting on the toilet. Cusack is the most disconcerting as Nixon. He dons a ridiculously big prosthetic nose and at one point corners the serving staff trying to get inside information on how to get the black vote. In addition, the first ladies include Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Minka Kelly as Jacqueline Kennedy, and Melissa Leo as Mamie Eisenhower. Serving as comic relief are Cecil’s coworkers played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz.
Depicting American history through a different set of eyes, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is an intriguing and important story to be told. An alternative bird’s-eye view of the JFK assassination, Lyndon Johnson ending segregation, and the rise of Martin Luther King Jr. are among the many pivotal events presented. The film rests on the strong shoulders of Forest Whitaker who couldn’t be better as Cecil Gaines. Even if the film is a bit heavy-handed at times, it’s also both moving and inspiring.