What strikes me most when I left this film was how the devastating events portrayed in this film happened not too long ago. As an immigrant living in the US, I may not be as well versed about the history of the Civil Rights movements nor the details of racial segregation that still prevailed just five decades ago. But the issue of racism is something we fellow human beings can all identify with and relate on various levels. In Lee Daniels’ The Butler, those universal themes become even more potent as it’s such a personal journey. And what a journey it was.
Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is based on a real-life White House butler Eugene Allen, who served eight American presidents over three decades. The film opens when Cecil was a young boy in the 20s, working on a Southern Plantation in the Deep South. In one day, his mother got raped by his white owner, and his dad ended up getting killed right in front of him. The older woman of the house took pity on him and trained him to be a house servant. It soon became the key to survival for Cecil as he leaves the plantation, as he’s able to find work from that training which eventually leads to him being ‘discovered’ by a White House staff.
Whilst Cecil lives a relatively happy life, now married and able to afford a pretty nice house where he lives with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and his two boys. He loves his job and is well-liked by both his employers and fellow staff. Presidents come and go but they’re all fond of Cecil and find him to be trustworthy. Life may seem quiet in the White House, but the country is in tumult, with dramatic changes happening during his time, most notably The Civil Rights movement and the war in Vietnam, both of which affect Cecil’s life in a personal way.
Despite the tough subject matter though, I’m glad that Daniels peppers this film with wit and humor. Cecil’s enthusiasm for his craft is endearing, and soon he gains a reputation amongst his staff for his unmistakable dedication. I love all the interaction in the kitchen with fellow service staff Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, with Cuba as the comic relief. The film shows the contrast between what happens in Cecil’s work life and at home with his family and friends. He’s a man living in two worlds, something he’s perhaps unable and unwilling to resolve. Obviously it puts a strain on his relationship with his oldest son Louis (David Oleyowo), especially as he dabbles in politics in college. Obviously the two don’t see eye to eye on how best to handle the issue of racial prejudice. The film’s tagline says: One quiet voice can ignite a revolution, which is Cecil’s motto. It’s safe to say that Louis sees his dad as a pacifist.
As with many biopics, there are a certain dose of sentimentality here, but there are genuine dramatic tensions and terrific performances to overcome it. In fact, I didn’t feel emotionally manipulated as much as I did when I saw War Horse that’s so overwhelmingly schmaltzy. That’s quite a feat considering how gut-wrenching the real historical moments were, thank goodness I packed a bunch of tissues. I think the protest scene at the diner and the burning of the Freedom Bus by the KKK would haunt me for days. It’s pretty amusing to see the historical characters portrayed in the film, though the film stray into fanciful territory with Louis hobnobbing with all the who’s who of the Civil Rights Movements, from Malcolm X to Dr. Martin Luther King. Surely the filmmaker took a lot of liberties in this area, as it gets to be too hard to believe that one person can be in every single monumental Civil Rights event in history.
I also got a kick out of seeing a myriad of actors portraying the eight presidents during Cecil’s tenure as the butler. The make up looks jarring at times, especially John Cusack as Nixon. Seeing Alan Rickman as Reagan is one of the highlights for me as I love Rickman as an actor, though he still can’t lose his inimitable diction whilst speaking with an American accent. It took me out of the movie for a bit but overall those scenes didn’t distract me from the story.
Now, the performances. Forest Whitaker will likely garner an Oscar nomination (this is Weinsteins-produced after all) and deservedly so. For one, he seems to ‘disappear’ into his role, a sign of a great biopic to begin with, but he also didn’t overact, which in a role like this is quite a feat. There’s a great deal of restraint in his performance, a lot of times conveying emotions though his eyes. There are moments where he overhears the political talks the presidents have with their staff that literally affect his own family, and the anguish and torment Cecil must’ve been feeling comes through in subtle gestures.
Oprah Winfrey did a good job as well, though it’s a bit tough for me not to think ‘hey that’s Oprah!’ Now, my second favorite character is David Oyelowo as Louis. The 37-year-old Brit does an impressive job playing a character so believably, from the late teens into middle age, he’s absolutely convincing. He’s quickly becoming one of my favorite Brits, consistently delivering terrific performances just in the past few years in The Help, Rise for the Planet of the Apes and Jack Reacher. I might have to go back to the earlier episodes of BBC Spooks as he’s apparently one of the cast!
Final Thoughts: This is the first film by Lee Daniels I saw, and I must say I’m quite impressed by his direction here. I think the filmmaker handled the crucial ‘landmark’ moments such as JFK and Dr. King’s shootings pretty well in that they always serve as a ‘background’ to the focal point that is Cecil’s life. The cinematography is beautiful, I like way he shot the details of the White House. Daniels also like to use music to highlight/dramatize certain scenes, and for the most part I quite enjoyed it. The score by Rodrigo Leao is quite pleasing to the ear as well. It’s quite an ambitious endeavor and it feels one-sided politically, but I think Daniels has crafted a charming and poignant film that I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing again.
4 out of 5 reels