After a legal battle over its title, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is officially in theatres, and it proves to be an interesting take on the civil rights movement in America. The movie is based on the true story of Cecil Gaines, a butler who served in the White House for 8 administrations. The film reminded me a little bit of Forrest Gump as Cecil finds himself involved in some of the most iconic moments in American history. The unique part of The Butler is that it ends up telling the story of 2 different men, Cecil (Forest Whitaker) and his son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who each take very different approaches to fighting against their oppression.
The film starts in 1926 when Cecil is a young boy working in the cotton fields with his parents. After a shocking event, he is brought into the home to be a butler (well, the white folk call the role something much more vulgar). After years of developing his skills in a couple homes and then a hotel, he’s recruited to serve at the White House with Eisenhower (Robin Williams) currently serving as President.
All the presidents make brief appearances and it’s a parade of famous faces. It works and doesn’t work at the same time. Some of the actors do quite well (Williams, James Marsden as Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson) and others are horribly miscast (Alan Rickman as Reagan, John Cusack as Nixon). It’s fun seeing all these actors appear as these iconic characters, but it also becomes distracting. Even well-known faces fill out the smaller roles like Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy, along with Terrence Howard, Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, Jesse Williams, True Blood‘s Nelsan Ellis, (the cross-dressing Lafeyette plays Martin Luther King Jr.), Clarence Williams III, and Mariah Carey in a very brief and speechless cameo.
Luckily, the film’s central story is strong enough that the celebrity carousel doesn’t completely steal the spotlight. Cecil’s journey is one of a quiet revolution. As Martin Luther King points out, working as a butler breaks down the stereotypes of black people by showing strong work ethic and dependability. That quietly speaks volumes. Along with other butlers (played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz), Cecil is able to give subtle input to the Presidents he is serving as well.
Cecil’s son has a much more different approach. When the civil rights movement starts to happen in the 1960s, his son Louis is immediately interested in the radical side of things and becomes involved in the Freedom Riders activist group, becomes a close friend of MLK, and after his assassination, joins the Black Panthers. Louis is pursuant of an active, physical, loud revolution. There’s a wonderful sequence that intercuts Cecil and the other butlers setting the table for a big formal dinner at the White House, while Louis and his friends stage a rebellion at a local diner where they sit in the “white” seats refusing to move and are physical assaulted because of it.
Father and son are completely opposed to each other’s views and hate each other for it. While the film initially sides with Cecil, by the end, it balances its opinions evenly and lets the viewer decide its own view on what is the more effective way to rebel.
Forest Whitaker gives a beautifully nuanced and focused performance as Cecil. While the character is subordinate and asked to “make the room feel empty even when he’s there”, there has to be a fire and a strong will behind the facade and Whitaker does that wonderfully. There’s a great pair of scenes where Cecil goes to his boss to ask for a raise that are strikingly dignified. Also doing great work is Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s wife, Gloria. While she’s never able to escape the fact that you’re watching Oprah (the goddess herself), Winfrey creates a fantastic character in smaller moments of a woman trying to hold her family together while she deals with her own personal demons through decades of upheaval. Both Winfrey and Whitaker are strong contenders for Oscars.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is overlong and hits the same points a few too many times (it should have had more faith in its audience), and the celebrity cast is overwhelming, but it’s an interesting, well-acted, well-directed lesson in American history that should be required viewing.