Lee Daniels’ The Butler kicks off Oscar season with a very compelling drama about the fight for Civil Rights using a true story as an inspiring backdrop.
Warner Bros. was very concerned that people would mistake this movie for a short film made in 1916, and so The Weinstein Company was forced to heed their pathetic whining over complete bullshit and change the title to Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in turn making Lee Daniels seem pretentious by including his name in the official title. This is very unfair to Daniels, who did a very good job in crafting a story that has very little to do with the butler, and instead is about the Civil Rights battles of the 20th Century and a very touching story of a man and his son.
This story is very, very loosely based on an article written by Wil Haygood in The Washington Post titled “A Butler Well Served By This Election” in 2008 about former White House butler Eugene Allen, who served 8 presidents from Truman through Reagan. That is about where the similarities end. Here we have Forrest Whitaker with a tremendous performance as the titular character Cecil Gaines, a man who grew up on a Cotton Farm in the early 20th century. We are first introduced to a young Cecil, witnessing his mother (Mariah Carey) getting raped by what is essentially a slave owner (Alex Pettyfer) who then murders his father (rapper David Banner) right in front of him. It is shocking to see these scenes, since they take place 4 decades after the abolition of slavery, but it shows how very little had changed. Cecil then is taken inside the house to serve and that is how he gets his training before he runs away and gets a job serving at a hotel.
We then fast forward to Cecil working at a hotel in Washington DC, now married with 2 children, when he gets the call to work in the White House. For Cecil and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), this is the peak of his journey, and that of the African American race. His son Louis (David Oyelowo), however, does not see this as a step up at all. His father is merely a servant, and he does not believe that is something to look up to. Louis and his father butt heads repeatedly as Louis wants to fight for equality, whereas Cecil, still haunted by his youth, does not want to rock the boat at all.
Using Louis, the film can really show the fight for Civil Rights from the very beginning, as he joins the Freedom Riders and is among those fighting in the lunch counter sit ins at Woolworths using Martin Luther King Jr’s non-violence approach. He is also on the Freedom Rider bus that is bombed and is in the same jail cell with MLK in Birmingham. He then gets fascinated with Malcolm X’s approach and the Black Panthers for a more radical means of fighting for civil rights. Cecil has both an ideological problem with what Louis is doing, and also a lot of concern as a father for his son’s safety. These scenes with Louis are definitely the most compelling parts of the film, and they also drive the narrative. Cecil as a White House butler is almost secondary, although the film also uses those scenes to show the advancement of Civil Rights. We have Eisenhower using the military to desegregate the schools. We see Kennedy come to grips with his own feelings of race, LBJ passing both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, Nixon wondering how he can exploit “black power” to get their vote and Reagan being very personally kind and warm to Cecil, yet still defending apartheid in South Africa as strongly as he can.
The acting of the main cast here is all terrific. Whitaker will most likely earn another Best Actor nomination with his portrayal of Cecil, going through 50 years of his life and showing a very compelling character arc. Oprah Winfrey likewise will probably also earn a supporting nod for her portrayal of the lonely alcoholic Gloria. My favorite performance of the film was from Oyelowo, who really helps humanize the Civil Rights battles while also just being a kid who rebels against his father. Also shining here are Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz as two other White House butlers that work with Cecil.
There is, however, a problem with some of the supporting cast. Unfortunately there is some stunt acsting here. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Robin Williams is a perfectly fine Eisenhower, and Liev Schrieber, with the help of a lot of makeup, does a very good job portraying LBJ. Jane Fonda also does a very good job playing Nancy Reagan (A casting decision that no doubt had some heads exploding). However, on the opposite side of the spectrum, James Marsden just looks way too young to play JFK. He does a fine job, but he also looks like a grad student. I realize JFK was young, but he wasn’t THAT young. Likewise Minka Kelly is a very beautiful actress playing the very beautiful Jackie Kennedy, but the 33 year old actress looks 25, not 45. The most unfortunate is John Cusack as Richard Nixon. Now I am a very big John Cusack fan. I think he is a tremendous actor that should be getting a lot more dramatic roles to show his acting chops. But here, they give him a prosthetic nose and nothing else, so it looks like Lloyd Dobler doing an impersonation of Richard Nixon every time he is on screen. It may even be a very good impersonation, but I was simply unable to get past that it was John Cusack in every scene, not Richard Nixon.
Daniels did a very good job bringing to life Danny Strong’s excellent script. The film was at times infuriating, at times emotionally draining and at times joyous. Despite some casting decisions, Daniels did a tremendous job with his very large star-studded ensemble cast, and really got the most out of all the acting. It also did not come across as manipulative, which was definitely a concern of mine coming in. While it may be unrealistic that Cecil and Louis were around for all the major moments of the civil rights fight, I felt it was very important to the story, which at it’s core was the generational and ideological disagreements of the African American community at the time which has not really been explored very often.
Conclusion [9 out of 10]
This film is not for everybody, although it should be. A lot of people roll their eyes and get annoyed hearing about the fight for civil rights as if they’ve heard it a million times before and are just tired of it. The article that inspired this film was about how unlikely it was that a black man could be elected President with our recent history, and the film does not shy away from that. Many people who do not support the policies or politics of Barack Obama may recoil when that part of the story comes along. However, it ignores his politics and policies, and one thing everybody should agree with is how amazing it is that we have progressed as a society to the point where it is not only a possibility, but a reality that we have elected an African American as president. This film is about that triumph and it’s one we should all embrace, regardless of politics.