Lee Daniels' The Butler
Distributed by: The Weinstein Company
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
When I first saw the promos for this story about a butler who served in the White House through eight presidential terms, I was intrigued. I like historical films and this one was reportedly based on a true story. My only worry was the huge all-star cast. With all those heavy hitters in the film, I worried that the creators of the film might have overdone things. I have seen films with such an overinflated cast that have bombed. That being said, I decided to try my luck with Lee Daniels' The Butler.
The film centers around Cecil Gaines, his rise to White House butler from the son of a share cropper (I'm assuming he was a share cropper as the film begins in 1927, long after the Reconstruction of the South). Cecil's life was never easy. As a child (Michael Rainey, Jr.), he witnessed the rape of his mother (Mariah Carey) and the murder of his father (David Banner). Having witnessed this injustice at the hands of her son (Alex Pettyfer), the owner of the cotton plantation (Vanessa Redgrave) decides to give Cecil the best chance he will have in life. She takes him in and makes him a houseboy, eventually teaching him to read and write amongst other things.
When he is old enough, Cecil (Aml Amin) sets off on his own without a penny to his name and finally finds a job working at a hotel under the tutelage of longtime hotel employee Maynard (Clarence Williams III). When Maynard is offered a job working in a prestigious hotel in Washington, D.C., he decides to recommend Cecil for the job and this begins his adventure to the White House. Now an adult who has perfected his trade, Cecil (Forest Whitaker) has earned the notice of a White House staffer and is offered a job as a butler in the White House.
By then, he is married to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), a kind-hearted fun women with a little to much affinity for alcohol, and has two sons. While Charlie is too young to understand the Civil Rights issues that surround him, Cecil's oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), has grown tired of being discriminated against because of the color of his skin.
At this point, the movie becomes a story of parallel lives. While Cecil is working for the various presidents that come his way, his son Louis is following the teachings of a number of Civil Rights leaders, conducting peaceful sit-ins at lunch counters, becoming a Freedom Rider, fighting for the right for blacks to vote, joining the Black Panthers and more. All of this causes a rift between father and son. It's not that Cecil doesn't agree that blacks and white should be treated as equals, it's how his son is going about doing it and the danger he has placed himself in time and time again. Cecil loves his country and feels that he is completing a service toward his country while his son is so busy fighting against it.
It isn't until the Reagan administration and its policy towards South Africa does Cecil realize that he does have an opinion about Civil Rights. It becomes even more important to him during the presidential race of Barrack Obama, when he realizes that for the first time in history, a black man can become president.
In the end, Lee Daniels' The Butler becomes a study of Civil Rights in the United States as witnessed by someone close to the subject...an insider at the White House whose opinion was often asked, but who was still often considered a second class person to the white staff. I grew up learning about the hate that pervaded in this country, separating people by their color. Although I'm a proud American, I can honestly say that I am ashamed of this country's track record on this matter. Even now, in this day an age, where a black man can achieve greatness as the President of the United States, there is still discrimination and hate among races.
Perhaps even more shocking for me is the fact that this sort of thing continued to be practiced in the White House long after Civil Rights laws were enacted to prevent it. Why is it that black staff members in the White House continued to be paid less then white staff members and were refused the right of promotion to higher levels until the Reagan administration? Shameful! Seeing this I could understand Louis' view and need to fight back against practices he believed to be inherently wrong.
And yet, I understand Cecil's love of country and need to serve it. I understand how proud he was of his youngest son when he decided to serve his country rather than fight against it like his older brother. I love my country as well, but just like anyone you might love, you can be angered by things they do and seek change. Being angry about a path taken or a decision made doesn't mean that I'm going to desert the country I love.
Driving these important points home are a well-written and believable script and terrific performances by such actors as Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Jesse Williams, Yaya Alafia, Nelsan Elias, Lenny Kravitz and more. I must commend the casting directors who chose Nelsan Elias to be Martin Luther King, Jr., John Cusack to be Richard Nixon, James Marsden to be JFK (although I never believed he could pull it off until I saw him in the role), Robin Williams to be Dwight D. Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber to be Lyndon B. Johnson, Alan Rickman to be Ronald Reagan and Jane Fonda to be Nancy Reagan. I also must commend the make-up folks for giving these actors the traits needed to pull off the roles visually and of course the actors for their believable performances. The only thing I have to wonder about is why Mariah Carey was given such a high billing when the only acting we really see her doing is...well, she's not wearing any makeup.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film and all of its elements and would recommend it to any history buff as well as anyone seeking an intelligent, well-written film with inspiring performances. If Lee Daniels' The Butler doesn't receive numerous Oscar nominations, I will not only be surprised, but disappointed at the Academy for not recognizing greatness when it sees it. But, be forewarned, this movie tries to depict things as honestly as possible. Thus, if violence is not something you feel comfortable with, despite the fact that this film is based on actual events and often times shows footage of actual violence taken out on peaceful protestors, this might not be a movie for you. Oh, and bring some tissues - trust me, if you have a heart, you're going to need them.