Lee Daniels’ The Butler offers a stirring take on 60 years of American history, with an all-star ensemble taking on a myriad of iconic figures. Directed by Lee Daniels, the drama is inspired by a 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” by Wil Haygood. The piece tells the remarkable story of Eugene Allen, who served as a White House butler for six presidents from 1952 to 1986.
In the screen version, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is given the opportunity of a lifetime following years of hardship. After serving as a butler for private events, he is called to work at the White House, where he remains for over 30 years. For the powerful leaders that interact with him daily, Cecil puts a human face on Civil Rights issues and ultimately factors into the political decisions they make.
Whitaker’s calming screen presence adds something to the character that few actors could have. The Oscar winner effectively portrays Cecil as a gentle soul, whose tragic past (his father was shot dead in front of him) has made him weary of protesting injustices. By contrast, his son Louis (David Oyelowo) is determined to bring about change, even if it means being thrown in jail repeatedly and facing death. His wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is caught between the two men – unsure of the best way to fight inequality but realistic about her low status in society.
Though it’s hard to separate Winfrey from her off-screen persona, there are several scenes in which we believe she’s Gloria. Conflicted, jealous, and battling a drinking problem, Gloria feels neglected by her hardworking husband and toys with the idea of having an affair with her tiresome neighbor (Terence Howard). Her heartbreak is palpable, particularly in a scene where she repeatedly asks Cecil how many pairs of shoes Jackie Kennedy owns. It’s clear she’s attempting to find out more about the family her husband spends more time with than his own.
Scenes that offer a glimpse of what it was like to work in the Oval Office are among the film’s highlights. Standout turns from Cuba Gooding Jr, Lenny Kravitz and Coleman Domingo – who portray Cecil’s fellow servers – also enhance Daniels’ vision.
The film’s central weakness lies with screenwriter Danny Strong’s overuse on creative license with a story that is rich enough to begin with. For this reason, it often veers into territory that will likely draw comparisons to Forrest Gump (and not necessarily in a good way).
Furthermore, it sometimes feels more like a who’s who of well-known stars rather than historical fiction. It’s difficult to see Robin Williams, who plays Eisenhower, as anyone other than Robin Williams. The same is true of John Cusack, who is so obviously trying to sound like Nixon, that it detracts from the story at hand. James Mardsen is arguably too fresh-faced to portray Kennedy, but he’s just as charismatic and nails the President’s signature accent. Unfortunately, Minka Kelly, who doesn’t have much to do as Jackie Kennedy, comes off as an impersonator of the famed First Lady. The always enjoyable Alan Rickman does a better job at disappearing into the role of Reagan.
It all builds to an incredibly moving scene in which Cecil, who grew up on a plantation and saw black men hung, witnesses the inauguration of Obama.
The Butler serves as a symbol of how far the U.S. has progressed over the past few decades. It’s also a reminder of how much some suffered, fought or died to achieve the rights we have today. Given that stories about Civil Rights or with African Americans at the center are seldom adapted for the screen, the film is something of a revelation. Daniels’ three-year fight to get the film made was certainly worthwhile.
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