Lee Daniels’ The Butler tells the story of an African American White House butler who served eight American presidents over three decades. The film traces the dramatic changes that swept American society from the civil rights movement to Vietnam and beyond, and how those changes affected this man’s life and family.
The Butler is a highly fictionalized account of the life of Eugene Allen, a White House butler who served every president from Eisenhower to Reagan. Forest Whitaker stars as the butler Cecil Gaines (I suppose the film is TOO fictionalized to use Allen’s real name). The all star cast includes Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s alcoholic wife, Gloria; Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower; John Cusack as Richard Nixon; Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan; Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan; James Marsden as John F. Kennedy; Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, and many more. Emmy-award winning Danny Strong wrote the screenplay.
Cecil begins his tenure during the Eisenhower Administration. As he works for one President after another, Daniels shows us the civil-rights movement as it developed, starting in the ‘50s, through the prism of Gaines’s job and his tumultuous family life. In a way, The Butler is a bit like the historical comedy Forrest Gump. Important historical events are discussed within the framework and through the eyes of a fictional character. Just as the clueless Forrest manages to play a significant role in a variety of major moments in U.S. history, Cecil manages to affect presidential policy by bringing numerous presidents coffee and sandwiches. For example, Cecil is able to gently ‘nudge’ Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson into taking decisive action on civil rights matters by offering sage advice they probably wouldn’t even have considered from their ‘official’ advisors. The Butler is high-minded, fluent, fast-moving entertainment — an
intricate gimmick movie with a heart.
Cecil Gaines was born in the ‘20s, on a cotton farm in Georgia that was run like a plantation. As a boy, he sees his mother raped and his father shot dead by his young White employer—who, of course got away with it in the Jim Crow South. Cecil is trained as a ‘house servant’ by the employer’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave). He runs away in his late teens and gets a job as a waiter in a Southern hotel, where his African American boss tells him not to say anything or appear to be listening to conversations, and not to look any White person in the eye.
Cecil becomes so good at being ‘invisible’ in a room working as a servant he eventually is ‘discovered’ and ends up working in the White House. He discovers that it’s also run like a plantation (the kitchen staff is all Black), and he’s given the same kind of warnings. But here’s the surprise: Cecil is proud of being a butler. He enjoys the rituals and the protocols. He takes pleasure in the formality of his limited role—including his small exchanges with Presidents. For example, one candid conversation takes place in the men’s room with President Johnson (Liev Schreiber) while sitting on the can.
But most of the dramatic conflict of the movie is between Cecil and his son, Louis (David Oyelowo). Louis is convinced his father is the ultimate Uncle Tom, and the young man is humiliated by his father’s career. Louis joins the civil rights movement, and the movie cuts back and forth between the two men, one in the kitchen, and the other in the bloody streets, as they grow farther and farther apart.
Then there’s Cecil’s wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), who is often home alone while he works long dinners at the White House. She grows restive and resentful, drinks heavily, and dallies
with a neighbor, played by Terrence Howard as a lazy nere-do-well. Winfrey’s powerful common sense and humor dominate these moments, which are a welcome relief from the White House and the demonstrations. The scenes with Winfrey give the film a human touch, keeping it from getting too political.
The Butler has been the ‘number one’ box office hit its first two weeks out, earning $57.2 million. The story is powerful and the performances are often mesmerizing. Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey have given the performances of their lives, and David Oyelowo has established himself as a rising young star to watch.
Rated PG-13, The Butler runs for 132 minutes. That may seem long, but Daniels’ quick pacing will make you wonder why it’s over so quickly. This is an extremely moving film, so be ready for an emotional roller coaster. President Barack Obama was reported to have “teared up” at his White House screening. High praise, indeed.