Much like how ‘Forest Gump’ was a feather in the wind, observing and interacting with major historic events through the decades, ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ uses a similar plot device as we follow a black man who started in the cotton fields of the South and ended up as a White House butler for seven U.S. Presidents from Eisenhower through Reagan. With interesting subject matter and an all-star cast including Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and Cuba Gooding, Jr. amongst many others, I expect the film to appeal to a wide audience.
‘The Butler’ is loosely based on the story of Eugene Allen, who garnered a little bit of fame after an article about his life and career as a White House butler was published in the Washington Post. In the movie, the character is renamed Cecil Gaines. After his father is killed and mother raped on the plantation, Cecil (Whitaker) is taught to serve inside the house, rather than pick cotton. He eventually lands a few bartending and waiting jobs in high-end, whites-only hotels, until someone takes notice and suggests that he should apply for a position at the White House. Due to his good nature, kind heart and willingness to see and hear nothing, but only serve, he gets the job.
Cecil moves his wife Gloria (Winfrey) and two sons to Washington D.C. and begins a lifelong career of service through racially and politically charged times. The first President he serves is Eisenhower (Robin Williams), who has to deal with integrating schools. Richard Nixon (John Cusack) gives all of the White House’s black employees “Vote for Nixon” buttons. Cecil reads to John F. Kennedy’s (James Marsden) daughter, and consoles a blood-soaked Jackie. Liev Schreiber as LBJ calls a meeting while he’s on the toilet. Finally come Ronald and Nancy Reagan (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda), who invite Cecil and his wife to a big White House dinner as guests. Presidents Ford and Carter are skipped over entirely here.
During all this, Cecil’s oldest son stages sit-ins in the South, getting beaten up and jailed just for being black. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. pass by on-screen as Cecil’s youngest son signs up for the army and is shipped out to Vietnam. As Cecil is hard at work in the White House, his wife falls into depression, develops a drinking habit, and has an affair with their alcoholic neighbor (Terrence Howard).
While it may not have the most stylistic camera angles or shots, this is a beautiful yet harsh film. Its greatness comes from the actors, who each give the performance of a lifetime. Whitaker conveys an always calm and collected persona. Winfrey shines as her character goes from loving mother to raging alcoholic and back again. Everybody else, even Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey, turn in short but stunning performances.
This journey with Cecil Gaines is a great yet sad look at our nation’s history during the Civil Rights era. The film has some highly entertaining moments that garner smiles and laughs, as well as some genuine tear-jerking situations. This is one of the best films of the year so far.