With Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz. Written by Danny Strong. Directed by Lee Daniels. Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking. 132 minutes.
Putting aside the silliness of the studio putting the director’s name in the title (to avoid further legal action by a rival studio who had a film called “The Butler” made in 1916), LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER is a lightly fictionalized version of a true story, and one that gives us an interesting look into modern American history. Forest Whitaker gives an outstanding performance as Cecil Gaines, a White House butler who served presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan.
Gaines’ backstory is one of the brutality of the Jim Crow South, where “free” blacks were treated as little better than slaves, but those who served in the stately homes rather than the fields had a somewhat easier (or, at least, less harsh) life. After his father is brutally murdered without consequence, young Cecil is taken into the household and trained to serve. The matriarch of the family (Vanessa Redgrave in the first of many star cameos), tells him that he is to act as if he’s the only one in the room.
Reaching adulthood he heads north and finds another mentor (Clarence Williams III) who further refines his skills and gets him a job at a posh Washington, D.C. hotel. There his discretion and gentility are spotted by a government official who offers him a job on the White House staff. There he will be a mostly silent eyewitness to history, and also suffer the indignity of knowing that the black staff is paid less than the white staff and has less opportunity for advancement. It is, in effect, another plantation.
However that’s only one thread the film follows. Director Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong use Gaines as a window into the civil rights struggles of the last sixty years. We see him amazed as President Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams) confronts the Arkansas governor who refuses to comply with a court order to desegregate the schools. He serves a President John Kennedy (James Marsden) who slowly wakes up to status of blacks in 1960s America, and a President Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber) who helps gets the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act passed into law.
We also get a sense of the lives of his friends and co-workers (Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terrance Howard) and his often-neglected wife (Oprah Winfrey). His sons (the real Allen only had one) follow separate paths, one who goes through every facet of protests from the Freedom Riders to the Black Panthers to demonstrations against South African apartheid and the other who enlists to fight in Vietnam. We even get a complex Ronald and Nancy Reagan (Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda) who demonstrate a personal compassion towards Gaines that they lacked in policy pronouncements. The story ends with something that could only happen in the movies, except it happened for real: the longtime butler lives to see an African-American––Barack Obama––enter the Oval Office not as a servant but as President of the United States.
This is not a perfect film. It tries to cram so much history into a short period of time that after Richard Nixon (John Cusack) it has to skip over Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter to get to its final act. Its strengths are its performances, especially that of Whitaker, and its presentation of the Civil Rights struggle by focusing on how it impacted its African-American characters rather than guilty white liberals (e.g., “The Help”). It would be a mistake to pigeonhole this as a film for “black viewers,” as if the American history depicted here hasn’t impacted us all. This is a film that deserves a wide audience.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.