Stirring civil rights tale soars across nine decades of American history.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Starring Forest Whitaker & Oprah Winfrey
Directed by Lee Daniels
PG-13, 132 min.
Released Oct. 16, 2013
A sprawling sweep across nine decades of American history, this star-studded, heart-tugging and ultimately soaring tale filters the civil rights movement, Vietnam and other major events through the prism of a White House butler serving a parade of U.S. presidents.
Forest Whitaker is rock-solid as Cecil Gaines, whose improbable trek from Georgia cotton fields to the hallowed hallways of the nation’s highest office is a fictionalized drama loosely based on a real-life story. Screenwriter Danny Strong was inspired after reading a newspaper story about Eugene Allen, a black man who worked for the White House for 34 years before retiring as its head butler in 1986.
The movie is officially “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” because of a licensing conflict with another movie studio, which prohibited its intended title of “The Butler.” That’s how the director’s name became hitched to it at the last minute.
Daniels and Strong take a bit of dramatic license with their story as it barrels along across the years, and the miles. Much of it is to tremendous emotional effect, especially as young Cecil (played by Michael Rainey Jr.) watches the abuse of his mother (singer Mariah Carey) and the murder of his father (David Banner) by a loathsome young plantation squire (Alex Pettyfer), and later becomes trained as an indoor servant by the estate’s matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave).
As a teenager, Gaines finds a fancy job at a big-city hotel, then goes to Washington, D.C., for an even fancier job at an even fancier hotel. He marries, starts a family, and ultimately gets cherry-picked for a position on the wait staff for the White House in the late 1950s.
There, observing the mantra from his supervisor that “you see nothing, you hear nothing, you only serve,” he begins his long tenure attending the administrations of Presidents Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Nixon (John Cusack) and Reagan (Alan Rickman).
Perhaps Presidents Ford and Carter were skipped because the movie was already running over two hours long without them.
Or maybe there were simply no more actors available because the large cast had already drained Hollywood’s talent pool nearly dry. There’s Oprah Winfrey, doing an outstanding, Oscar-baiting turn as Cecil’s wife, loving but neglected as her husband gives his all to his job. Singer Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. play fellow Oval Office butlers.
Terrence Howard is slimy-good as a lecherous next-door-neighbor who tries to take advantage of Mrs. Gaines during Cecil’s long absences away from home. Elijah Kelley (“Hairspray,” “Red Tails”) and David Oyelowo (“Lincoln,” “Jack Reacher”) are both strong as Cecil’s teenage sons, one drawn to serve his country in Vietnam, the other to more radical courses of action.
And hey, look—it’s Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan!
Released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, the movie stirringly parallels its passionate message about racial harmony with Cecil’s more personal struggles with his own life, job and family.
Some of the scenes are wrenching to watch, like the one that cuts back and forth between a dignified formal White House dinner and a drug-store lunch-counter “sit-in” in the South at which Cecil’s son, and the other protesters, are jeered, spat upon, beaten, burned with steaming coffee and then hauled away to jail.
The intercut newsreel footage reminds us that the scene the movie depicts, and others like it, really happened. And Cecil’s story, in its dramatized arc of one man’s long, arduous but finally glorious and transformative journey across time, reminds us of just how far America has come in seeing what was once a dream becoming a reality.