There’s something to the idea of walking into a movie and having your expectations met. Not exceeded, not let down, but the movie you see is exactly what you expected it to be. This is Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a sometimes compelling, sometimes contrived, but mostly very engaging, nearly true tale of one man’s 30-year career as a White House butler. There’s a lot of history there and a lot of tumultuous change in society of which the ripple effects are still being felt. But at the end of the day, The Butler is at its heart a tale of how those changes were seen through the eyes of men of two different generations: a father and his son.
The film follows Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker, who begins life in the cotton fields of the south working alongside his family until the day his father is shot in the head for standing up to the plantation owner’s son for raping his wife. Anxious to leave the fields and their awful memories behind, the adult Cecil makes his way north and eventually lands a job as a butler at a fancy Washington D.C. hotel. He’s then brought to the White House where his long hours and dedication have a negative effect on his family. Cecil’s wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) descends into alcohol and infidelity, while his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes involved in the Civil Rights movement as a Freedom Rider, and later as a Black Panther.
The heart of the film is that struggle, and the way it’s viewed through the eyes of Cecil and Louis. The moments of The Butler that work best play those two worlds off of each other. They ask if you can have one without the other. Would Louis be free to rage against the machine if his father hadn’t of worked as hard as did? Does Cecil’s quiet dedication and work ethic in the face of all he’s seen and all that’s going on around him make him just as heroic as the ones on the street being arrested and beaten by the cops?
Of course, this being a movie that deals with 30 years of White House history, you have to bring in the stars to take their turn playing a president and for the most part, they’re all fine. Robin Williams doesn’t embarrass himself as Eisenhower, James Marsden exudes an appropriate amount of Kennedy charm, and Alan Rickman seems to inject a bit of Severus Snape into Reagan, which I kind of liked, but considering the Christ-like fervour some people invest in the man (Reagan not Rickman), it might not play so well in Poughkeepsie.
Who should truly be embarrassed is John Cusack, whose Nixon is laughably bad. There’s no way you don’t look at his Nixon and see John Cusack with a fake nose. The last thing you want in the middle of your life-affirming, uplifting movie is to have the audience rolling on the floor laughing at one actor entirely miscast as one of the most important figures in U.S. political history.
The real star of the film though is Forest Whitaker, who imbues every one of Cecil’s movements and actions with a mix of pathos and dignity. Even in the moments where The Butler veers into movie of the week territory, it’s Whitaker who holds it together and plays the material straight-faced and without a hint of irony.
As Gloria though, Oprah Winfrey has almost the same problem as John Cusack, except you’re not laughing at her. Although I appreciate Oprah’s desire to reach back to her acting roots, she’s such a personality unto herself you can’t shake the thought in your head that you’re watching Oprah and not a character. More than that, Gloria is treated to some of the more contrived aspects of the script with the booze and her affair with the next door neighbour played by Terrence Howard. It seems like the script was stuck for something compelling for Gloria, which the filmmakers must have thought they needed after Oprah was cast.
Danny Strong (Recount, Game Change) is the man behind the script, which does a remarkable job of boiling down a lot of history and a lot of characters into a tight narrative that zips by despite its over two hour running time. It’s strongest when dealing with the dynamics of how one family was torn apart and put back together because of the times, yet it’s strangely at its weakest when it feels compelled to give lip service to one point in history or another. For instance, looking back it does seem peculiar that Louis would find himself in the inner circle of James Lawson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Black Panthers, but most scenes come and go to make their desired effect and then move on.
What makes the script work best though is that it gives the actors room to make their mark no matter the size of the part they play. Liev Schreiber gets a great moment as Lyndon Johnson where he storms around the White House in a fury because the lights are always being left on. Nelsan Ellis, unrecognizable if you just know him as Lafayette from True Blood, gives a brief but memorable turn as King, who makes a pointed but eloquent speech about the hidden power of the black man serving as butler. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz also provide good support as two of Cecil’s fellow White House butlers.
Overall, this is all that is and should be expected from a movie like The Butler, and for the most part it is satisfying. The film takes us right up to, if not close to, the election of Barack Obama, an impossible notion to comprehend in those cotton fields seen in the film’s opening, a science fiction idea right up there with space colonies and time travel. It’s a touching reminder of the power of the Obama victory in 2008, how the impossible became possible, and just what that moment meant to the Cecil Gaineses of the world. For that reason, you’ll leave the film with a tear in your eye, if not a few, and for a movie with the aims of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, that’s as it should be.