Movie review: 'The Butler' gives White House servant's view of times from Eisenhower to Obama
August 16, 2013 8:00 AM
Anne Marie Fox
Jane Fonda and Alan Rickman portray Nancy and Ronald Reagan.
Anne Marie Fox
Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker star in "The Butler."
By Barbara Vancheri Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The movie's title, tweaked after a dispute with a rival studio, is "Lee Daniels' The Butler."
Mr. Daniels is the director but, truth be told, it's "Forest Whitaker's The Butler" as he eloquently embodies the story of one man, eight U.S. presidents and a journey from picking cotton to picking an African-American as leader of the free world.
Mr. Whitaker appears to age before our eyes, from a butler quietly quaking at serving coffee to Ike to one invited to a state dinner by President and Mrs. Reagan.
The movie, inspired by a true story (rather than based on, which would hew more closely to actual events), opens with a scorching snapshot of life in 1926 Georgia. A black man, still clutching cotton and standing just feet from his 8-year-old son, is shot by a white farm owner.
PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.
The boy, Cecil Gaines, is transferred into the house where he learns to serve meals to the very man who killed his father and traumatized his mother. When he later leaves the shattered remnants of his family behind, that training helps him secure jobs at hotels and, then, the White House in 1957.
"The Butler" tells the story of a man and a movement in a conventional but compelling way. Where some films, such as "Mississippi Burning," "Malcolm X," "Nixon" or "Bobby," dramatize a single incident or period, this one tracks the sweep of history through eight decades, three in the White House.
It is bookended by scenes with an aged Cecil but tells its story chronologically. "The Butler" functions as a historical highlight reel, dramatizing such watershed events as lunch-counter sit-ins, Ku Klux Klan attacks on the Freedom Riders, the assassinations of JFK and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the rise of the Black Panthers, Watergate and the toll of the Vietnam War.
Cecil is a model of discretion, a husband who won't even tell his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), how many pairs of shoes Jackie Kennedy has. His job takes him away from his own house, where his two boys are pursuing different paths.
The elder son, Louis (David Oyelowo), joins protesters fighting for equality, justice and dignity in a dangerous, segregated South. He clashes with his father who is a silent witness to Oval Office discussions about the issues roiling the country.
"The Butler" follows Cecil and Gloria through family unity, estrangement, tragedy, awakening and rebirth. It's as much of a father-son story as a look at history from the other side of the white gloves clasping the silver tray.
Mr. Whitaker, who won an Oscar for capturing the charm, cruelty and contradictions of Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland," hits all the right notes as Cecil as if he were still Charlie Parker making musical magic in 1988's "Bird."
Butlers are expected to "hear nothing ... see nothing" and only serve, but Mr. Whitaker allows us to sense the emotions behind his placid face and restrained body language. When, at home, he briefly erupts, the anger is that much more powerful because it's so rare.
It's hard to ever forget Oprah is Oprah (this is what happens when performers are so much in the public eye) and her Gloria looks lost at a home sewing machine. But she has an awards-show moment when she's applying lipstick and drunkenly challenging her husband about how he divides his time and loyalties.
The casting is both an embarrassment of riches and occasional case of stunt hiring gone awry as with Mariah Carey as young Cecil's mother, Robin Williams as President Eisenhower and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Even with brown contacts, a red dress and brown hair, she's too tall and too Jane Fonda.
When it comes to the presidents, Liev Schreiber as LBJ and Alan Rickman as President Reagan are the best, and John Cusack as Richard Nixon the worst. James Marsden supplies the hair, accent, empathy and warmth to JFK.
David Oyelowo brings pain and passion to the role of Louis while Terrence Howard turns up as the neighborhood lothario and Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz are perfect as part of Cecil's workplace circle.
None other than Clarence Williams III, fondly remembered as Linc on "The Mod Squad" and here something of a mentor to young Cecil, scolds the teen for using the N-word. "Don't you ever use that word! It's a white man's word. It's filled with hate."
Directed by Mr. Daniels ("Precious") and written by Danny Strong ("Recount," "Game Change"), "The Butler" takes liberties with the original real-life story penned by Wil Haygood in The Washington Post in November 2008.
The names of the butler and his wife were Eugene and Helene Allen and they had one son, not two, for starters. Also, he joined the White House under President Truman rather than Ike, as dramatized here.
Changes were made in the service of drama and that means coincidences, which are sometimes hard to swallow. But "The Butler" allows us to watch a witness to history and replay moving chapters shameful, familiar, triumphant and, ultimately, teeming with hope.