The sweep of history achieves a grandeur in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which displays an overarching perspective that’s glued together by a personal narrative. The film is inspired by the experiences of Eugene Allen, an African-American who served as a White House butler – and eventual maître d’ – under eight administrations. Allen’s story was reported by Wil Haygood in a 2008 Washington Post story, but the film is not a biopic. Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong (Recount, Game Change) have fictionalized Allen’s life and enlisted powerhouse actor Forest Whitaker to play the butler, now dubbed Cecil Gaines, and while telling the Gaines’ story also put the last 90 years of African-American history on display.
Ninety years is an awful lot of history to cover, especially given that these decades are so eventfully marked by legal, social, and cultural watersheds in American civil rights history. In public comments, Daniels has likened his film to Forrest Gump, another movie in which the title character serves as our witness to history. Yet the broadness of The Butler’s scope carries over to its focus. There’s just too much material to shoehorn into its framework and too little original perspective offered by the central character. After all, this butler has been trained to make a room “feel empty” when he’s in it. His entire life has been devoted to being unseen and unheard.
Nevertheless, The Butler is a remarkable and powerful film. Beginning on a Georgia cotton plantation in the Twenties and ending with President Obama’s assumption to the White House, the film provides a living tableau to those for whom recent history is as remote as ancient times. A host of A-list stars have been enlisted to play small roles in a bid for viewer engagement. See Mariah Carey in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-her role as Cecil Gaines’ maltreated mother, Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. as fellow White House butlers, Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber as LBJ (barking orders from a toilet seat), and John Cusack as Richard Nixon. None of the impersonations seem particularly precise, but the presidents all have brief screen time so the casting stunts never get in the way. The performances at the core of the movie – Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, Oprah Winfrey as his wife Gloria, and David Oyelowo as their eldest son Louis, who becomes a frequently jailed Freedom Rider and black-power advocate in the Sixties – are stupendous. Whitaker’s substantial gifts are well-known to most viewers, but Winfrey, who provides the film’s emotional core, is also magnificent. Rising star Oyelowo, sizzles with an intensity that practically steals the whole show.
As parents, Cecil and Gloria are typical of middle-class families of all races, who work hard to provide a better life for their children. It’s in their home that the film feels most lifelike, and where Cecil can speak his mind, and he and Louis air their differences. We see a marriage that is prosperous, then hobbled by Cecil’s supreme devotion to his work, and again brought together by love and shared tragedies and triumphs. It’s a lovely portrait of a marriage over time, and though it is packed with melodrama, it has none of the baroque flourishes that color so many of Daniels’ films (Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, The Paperboy, Monster’s Ball). Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a straightforward film that puts the recent past in our grasp.
Lee Daniels' The Butler, Lee Daniels, Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, John Cusack, James Marsden, Robin Williams, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Jane Fonda, Minka Kelly, Vanessa Redgrave, Clarence Williams III, Yaya Alafia, Elijah Kelley, Alex Pettyfer