The official title of The Butler is in fact Lee Daniels’ The Butler, as The Weinstein Company were forced to make a slight alteration due to peculiar studio politics. It may seem like a trivial change, but it’s actually very appropriate, reinforcing that this is not so much a sweeping historical drama but rather a Lee Daniels movie slathered with all of his directorial trademarks. As evidenced in films like Precious and The Paperboy, Daniels is not one for subtlety, opting for a manipulative, heavy-handed approach as opposed to something more dignified. Making matters worse, The Butler is an extremely overstuffed picture, hoping to cover far too much in a 130-minute runtime. With that said, however, it’s miraculous to report that The Butler is not too bad on the whole. It’s a hugely flawed endeavour, but there’s undeniable passion to Daniels’ efforts, and there are enough isolated moments of greatness to make this recommended viewing for the demographic who enjoy low-key dramas over big blockbusters.
As a little boy working in the cotton fields of Georgia in the 1920s, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) witnesses the death of his father who dared to speak up about the brutal rape of his wife. Brought into the house by matriarch Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave), Cecil is trained to be a server, gaining experience that bodes well into adulthood. Moving from job to job, Cecil makes his way to Washington, D.C., where he is given the chance to work as a butler in the White House under President Eisenhower (Robin Williams) with fellow servers Carter (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and James (Lenny Kravitz). Becoming a family man, Cecil marries alcoholic Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), with whom he has two sons, including hothead Louis (David Oyelowo) who takes part in protests and marches to fight for civil rights. Cecil serves at the White House for decades, becoming a spectator of great political and social turmoil from the late 1950s up until his retirement in 1986.
Written by Danny Strong (who, funnily enough, played geek Jonathan in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), The Butler is based on the real-life story of Eugene Allen, a black man who served as a butler under eight Presidents during his many decades at the White House. But for reasons most likely related to manipulating viewers, Strong and Daniels fictionalise Allen’s story, renaming him Cecil Gaines and changing a lot of the details about his life. Biopics must alter various things for dramatic purposes, but to this extent is borderline offensive, as Strong and Daniels are basically saying that Allen’s actual life is not worthy of being depicted in a motion picture. Worse, The Butler is clearly a Lee Daniels movie from its earliest stages, opening with a shot of two dead African-Americans hanging in the moonlight, with an American flag behind them. Cecil’s father is murdered very early into the movie, in an act of violence that’s not justified beyond the fact that the shooter is an “evil” white man. It’s too much.
The narrative of The Butler splits its focus between Cecil and Louis. The movie observes Cecil as he immerses himself into White House regality, becoming a passive Forrest Gump-esque observer to a number of major historical events during which he is forced to be politically disconnected and surrender his individuality. Meanwhile, Louis submerges himself into the civil rights movement, changing radically as he participates in protests and is regularly sent to prison. As long as you’re able to accept the contrivance of Cecil’s son being a major player in the quest for equality, this arc is one of the aspects of The Butler that succeeds the most, giving us a welcome glimpse of the civil rights movement involving characters we grow to care about. While Daniels does go overboard with histrionics in some scenes, various moments are staged extraordinarily well, including a bus being attacked. For a $30 million movie, production values all-round are competent, with convincing period detail and attractive cinematography. Admittedly, this is a PG-13 endeavour, and a bit of R-rated flavour might’ve increased the authenticity of several scenes (there’s no blood when Cecil’s father is shot), but it’s not too much of an issue.
The Butler is beset with stunt casting, but the heart of the picture is Whitaker, who’s wonderful as the film’s namesake. Whitaker plays Cecil across numerous decades, from early adulthood all the way through to old age, and the actor never misses a beat, selling the character’s age at any given time through spot-on body language and delivery. Cecil is a conduit of sorts, but with Whitaker we believe him as more than a symbol; he emerges as a flesh-and-blood human. Also superb is Oyelowo, submitting passionate work as Cecil’s son Louis. The film observes several changes in Louis, and Oyelowo manages to sell them with seemingly little effort. Meanwhile, Oprah (yes, Oprah is an actress, too) displays unexpected maturity and depth as Cecil’s wife, and the likes of Gooding Jr. and Kravitz provide solid support. Also in the film are a string of well-known actors as various presidents; a stern Williams as Eisenhower, a chirpy James Marsden as Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Johnson, John Cusack as Nixon (yes, it’s true), and Alan Rickman as Reagan. The standout is Marsden, who embodies Kennedy nicely; as for the rest, we mostly see the actors rather than the historical figure they’re playing.
While watching The Butler, one gets the sense that the film is excluding a lot of detail; Kennedy’s assassination is glossed over, Nixon’s Watergate scandal isn’t dealt with at all, the Vietnam War ends without the audience, and so on. There is too much American history for a single 130-minute flick to cover, but then again Daniels is more interested in African-American struggles, eventually fast-forwarding to Barack Obama’s Presidential election win in 2008. Indeed, it’s hard to deny that the movie’s premise would be better-served as a miniseries on HBO, as The Butler feels unfinished in its current state. Nevertheless, Daniels’ movie still has merit due to its more powerful scenes, and one has to admire what he was trying to do here. Personally, I’ll take an almost-great drama over most of the other dreck polluting multiplexes in this day and age. It will not deserve all of the inevitable Oscar chatter, but its heart is definitely in the right place.