Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013) / Drama
aka The Butler
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking
Running time: 132 min.
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyewolo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Clarence Williams III, John Cusack, James Marsden, Alan Rickman, Elijah Kelly, Vanessa Redgrave, Robin Williams, Liev Schreiber, Nelsan Ellis, Jane Fonda, Alex Pettyfer, Minka Kelly, Mariah Carey, Yaya Alafia
Director: Lee Daniels
Screenplay: Danny Strong
Review published August 31, 2013
Forest Whitaker (The Last Stand, Repo Men) stars as Cecil Gaines, who partially grew up on a cotton plantation where his father was killed in an act of barbaric cruelty by one of the plantation owner family members (Pettyfer, In Time) . The matriarch of the house (Redgrave, Unfinished Song) takes Cecil inside, where he learns to serve meals and assist with various duties around the large manor. Eventually Cecil, virtually an orphan since his mother (Carey, Precious) has become mentally ill, leaves to strike out on his own in Washington D.C., taken in by an inordinately kind man (Clarence Williams III, American Gangster) who teaches Cecil the ropes of bartending and waiting, as well as keeping his nose out of politics, which earns him a job interview as a butler working in the White House.
Starting out in the Eisenhower (Robin Williams, License to Wed) administration, Cecil works hard and earns the respect of presidents, staff and colleagues, witnessing many tumultuous events on important things like the civil rights movement first hand. While the pay isn't fair as compared to what the white staff gets, Cecil earns enough for his own place, where he and his wife start a family, including two sons. One of them, Louis (Oyewolo, Jack Reacher), decides to join the more radical factions fighting for equality, from the Freedom Riders, to Martin Luther King (Ellis, Secretariat), to Malcolm X, to the Black Panthers. The two butt heads, as Cecil doesn't think it's good to rock the boat, while Louis thinks that his way is the only way to effect change, as the rift grows between the men espousing polar opposite philosophies. Cecil finds that tending to the home of the most important man in the country may come at a cost, as he is having trouble in his own.
The Butler is directed by Lee Daniels (The Paperboy, Shadowboxer), who carved a distinct name for himself in tackling difficult issues with his breakthrough film, Precious. Although The Butler may not garner as many accolades, it represents his most ambitious film yet, capturing its wide array of well-known characters, and a long, sweeping arc covering many hot topics, most of them dealing with the hard-fought fight for civil rights. Although the events are painted with broad strokes, it is in the smaller details that Daniels succeeds, putting an emphasis on characters that are more nuanced than what their iconic representations require; comparisons to Forrest Gump's basic narrative structure may not be far off.
Many embellishments abound in this story, so much so that it should be regarded as a work of historical fiction, and a few anachronisms may drive even some of the historians in the audience crazy. However, the weight of the thematic material is what is so compelling, enough to indulge in the drama despite knowing that many of the scenes depicted in the film never happened. Many scenes involving the civil right movement did happen, but had nothing to to with any butler in the White House, used here for dramatic effect. Such scenes as a 'sit-in' of sorts in which the Freedom Riders and some sympathizers decide to sit in the Whites Only section of a diner to order food, only to be greeting with vicious insults and physical abuse, are quite powerful and provocative without overreaching.
Although the film is mostly fictionalized, there really was an African-American, Eugene Allen, who worked as a butler for eight U.S. Presidents, and some of the events are amalgams of things that occurred to Allen, as well as others in the White House staff. Fictionalized or not, Forest Whitaker gives a solid performance as the eternally understated Cecil, portraying him from early adulthood all the way into old age, carrying the weight of many long, emotionally taxing years on his face and body. Though Cecil is often used as a conduit in order to bring forth many important things about the country and its leadership, we do get to see him as more than a symbol, as he has a life, family, and philosophy to his occupation. His job necessitates staying out of the politics, even if it deals with issues regarding African-Americans, even if he is asked directly for his opinion about them. We can see the wheels turning, but his best political moves are always his way to navigate through the prickly situations he is in, still dealing with the trauma of his father's murder after he urged him to get involved.
The emphasis on getting well-known actors to fill nearly every major role may prove to be too distracting for some people to get into. Oprah Winfrey (Bee Movie, Beloved), while delivering well as Cecil's wife Gloria, does loom too large as a personality to divorce her from her role, as we are consciously aware whenever she is on screen that it's Oprah we're seeing, rather than, simply, Cecil's wife. The same can be said for Robin Williams, who portrays Dwight Eisenhower, not particularly well cast. John Cusack (Hot Tub Time Machine, 1408) as Nixon looks mostly like a dour John Cusack with a slightly more sloped nose, while Liev Schreiber (Goon, The Painted Veil) as LBJ and Alan Rickman (Deathly Hallows Parts I & II) as Ronald Reagan look like caricatures, though, admittedly, they give their roles the charisma required. Amng the Presidemts, only James Marsden (2 Guns, Robot & Frank) as John F. Kennedy seems a natural fit, though Minka Kelly (The Kingdom) as Jackie is cast more on her stunning good looks than for her acting abilities, which is perhaps why Daniels limits her to a non-speaking performance.
If there is a larger weakness to the film, its that the story begins to lose its steam once it proceeds beyond the 1960s, where most of the civil rights issues were at their most potent. We breeze through the Ford and Carter administrations with a short montage, then get into the protests against the Reagan administration for his non-interventionist treatment of Apartheid in South Africa. It is interesting that Daniels portrays Reagan, as a person, in quite a positive light, yet, he does see him largely as uninterested in taking strong stances for human rights when on a national or global scale, contrasting LBJ, who is portrayed personally as a racist, but who saw the need to fight for civil rights. Conservatives will still likely bristle at the sight of "Hanoi Jane" Fonda (Georgia Rule, Monster-in-Law) as Nancy Reagan, though it is also a positive portrayal.
The film ends more in modern times with the election of Obama, and though it does weigh in mightily on how far the country has gone from a time when a black man had no power (paraphrasing from the early statement from Cecil's father, "It's a White man's world; we're just living in it") to eventually becoming the most powerful man in the world. As stirring as this notion is, it may come off to some viewers as a would-be campaign ad, especially since Obama's biggest supporter, Oprah, plays such a large role. It should be noted that The Butler's release date is in Obama's second and final term for office, so they aren't trying to help the President; they just happen to be his cheerleaders. Luckily, the film stops short of having Barack himself come out and give Cecil a handshake or hug, which likely would have finally been the "celebrity" appearance that finally breaks this already overstuffed, star-studded film.
Nevertheless, despite the large amounts of creative license and revisionism employed, the odd casting choices, Oscar baiting, and less-gripping final third, The Butler is still well worth watching for the more powerful scenes that put faces we come to care about in the middle of the fight for civil rights, which makes the marked racism and injustice all the more strikingly effective when they occur against people we've come to know and like. It also is of interest for the political dichotomy that exists between those youths who've gone to jail many times to protest for their rights vs. the older generation who often accepted the terms of their lot in life, hoping that putting in hard work and diligent avoidance of boat rocking would show the powers that be that there is nothing to fear. It's a potent talk piece.
©2013 Vince Leo