Butler, The (United States, 2013)

August 17, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Butler, The Poster

Calling Forrest Gump… Calling Forrest Gump

With The Butler, director Lee Daniels has managed to "Gump" the Civil Rights movement. That's not necessarily a bad thing but there are times when so many famous cameos threaten to become a distraction, especially since they're only tangentially germane to the main story. Watching the trailers and commercials, one gets the sense that this is a White House version of Upstairs, Downstairs. In reality, however, that material is only a sidelight. The Butler is about the different worldviews a father and son exhibit during the turbulent '60s, '70s, and '80s and the rift that develops between them as a result.

The early scenes transpire in the Deep South during the 1920s, when the post-slave mentality was still in full swing. Field workers were only technically "free" - they toiled for almost no wages for white overlords who could mistreat them with impunity. Cecil Gaines (who will grow up to be played by Forest Whitaker) is a cotton picker who watches as his father is gunned down in cold blood by one of the owners of the plantation. Cecil is invited by the somewhat sympathetic matriarch, Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave), to work in the house. Years later, after moving on, he functions as a butler in an upscale hotel, where he learns the importance of silence and anticipating what the customer wants. This leads to him be offered a plum job at the White House, where he serves every president from Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman).

Cecil's home life, however, is filled with discord. His loving wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), is an alcoholic who resents the time Cecil devotes to his job. His son, Louis (David Oyelowo), uses college as a path to civil rights activism. Louis' activities, which involve mostly peaceful protests, result in him being threatened by the KKK, beaten up, and incarcerated. After concluding that Martin Luther King's passive approach isn't working, he becomes radicalized and falls into the "black power" movement as a member of the Black Panthers.

The Butler (which is technically called Lee Daniels' The Butler for legal reasons, not because Daniels is an egomaniac) is loosely based on the real-life events of White House butler Eugene Allen, who served under eight presidents. According to interviews, while substantial "dramatic license" was taken with Allen's personal life, everything depicted within the White House actually happened. The irony is that the White House scenes are among the least effective. The movie shines when it focuses on the fractious relationship between Cecil and Louis, whose divergent perspectives on the role of the black man in America provides the point of friction. For Cecil, who grew up as a servant, the way to advance in life is to be hard-working and non-confrontational. For Louis, it means forcing the issue and taking a stand. This conflict, which played out in millions of families during the 1960s and 1970s, is underrepresented in cinema and Daniels gives it its due here.

Stunt casting undermines the White House scenes. Three presidents don't have actors stand in for them: Truman isn't mentioned and Ford and Carter are briefly seen only in old news footage. The other five are portrayed by well-known actors and there's not an unqualified casting success among them. The best of a weak bunch is Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, although it's an imperfect match at best (although the toilet scene is priceless). James Marsden offers an excellent mimicry of the Kennedy voice, but the physical resemblance is only passing. Robin Williams (as Eisenhower) and Alan Rickman (as Reagan) are completely wrong, with ludicrous makeup that never hides the actor. The worst of the worst, however, is John Cusack as Nixon. Cusack looks and sounds nothing like the 37th President, and his half-hearted attempts at imitation are unconvincing. The end result of all this is that the White House scenes become less a game of "spot the President" and more one of "spot the actor."

The main cast, in contrast to the presidential roster, is strong, with fine performances emerging from roles large and small. Forest Whitaker imbues his part with immense dignity and the old-age makeup is effective showcasing Cecil during his later years. David Oyelowo gives a powerful portrayal of the firebrand Louis - one can feel the character's anger at the world in general and his frustration with his father's passivity. A supporting actor nomination isn't out of the question. Oprah Winfrey does good things with an underwritten role and limited screen time. She hasn't been this effective since her debut in 1985's The Color Purple (although, to be fair, she hasn't taken many acting jobs since then). Other notable supporting players include Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, and Vanessa Redgrave.

The Butler is the latest of several 2013 movies to address the subject of race relations in America. 42, like The Butler, does this by using an historical lens while Fruitvale Station is contemporary. The Butler's "hook" is the opportunity to see how the dynamics within The White House changed from administration to administration over the course of the second half of the 20th century. While there's some of that, it's not where the movie's heart lies. It's when Daniels takes us out of the rarefied atmosphere of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and into the trenches of segregation (and integration) that the film catches fire. That's the reason to see The Butler - not to cringe at John Cusack's bizarre turn as Richard Nixon.

Butler, The (United States, 2013)

Director: Lee Daniels
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz
Screenplay: Danny Strong
Cinematography: Andrew Dunn
Music: Rodrigo Leao
U.S. Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Run Time: 2:07
U.S. Release Date: 2013-08-16
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1