“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (so clumsily titled with the director’s name in front thanks to some silly Hollywood lawsuits) is a finely made, expertly acted, only slightly overblown historical drama.
Loosely based on the life of White House butler Eugene Allen, who served under seven presidents, Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gains, an African-American who walked the halls of power during the height of the Civil Rights Era.
More often than not, historical movies have more to say about the times they are made in than the era they are depicting. I bring that up only because the past 12 months have seen several movies come along dealing frankly and directly with America’s terrible history of racial injustice.
Late 2012 had both “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained” and so far this year we’ve had “42,” “Fruitvale Station” (I know something that happened in 2009 isn’t exactly history but hang with me), and now “The Butler.”
All of these movies feature the deplorable treatment of African-Americans at the hands of white people, cringe-inducing use of the n-word, and plenty of sad head-shaking at the horror of it all.
Sure, all of this could be a coincidence as Hollywood has been known to binge on subjects ranging from the Holocaust to asteroids.
But, I think it likely has to do with the fact that we have reached a crossroads, milestone, turning point, or whatever you want to call it when it comes to national race relations and these movies reflect that.
I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the fact that even after we’ve elected and re-elected our first black president, there is still a great deal of tension and unease out in the country that we have yet to fully deal with.
In “The Butler,” we meet Cecil as a young boy working as a sharecropper in the Deep South in the 1920s. Seeking a better life, he eventually winds up in Washington D.C. working as a butler in a hotel. He catches the eye of a White House staffer and is hired on during the Eisenhower Administration.
My only real problem with “The Butler” is that it tries to take on a little too much at times. There is Cecil’s personal history with racism, then there is all of the White House political intrigue, then there is Cecil’s relationship with the rest of the staff, then there is strain at home with his alcoholic wife, Gloria (played by the queen herself, Oprah Winfrey), and generational conflict with his son, Louis (David Oyelowo).
Really, any one or two of these themes would have made for an effective movie. However, even after taking the wide-angle approach, Daniels’ movie still packs an emotional wallop.
Whitaker and Winfrey are great and what’s even more impressive are the performances by the rest of the cast in roles that at first glance appear to be nothing more than pure stunt-casting (Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. What?).
Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. are solid as Cecil’s coworkers and all the presidents (Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Liev Schreiber as LBJ, John Cusack as Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Reagan) give effective turns.
This is the kind of movie that screams Oscar bait, so don’t be surprised to see Whitaker, Winfrey or Daniels snag a nomination out of this.
Ultimately, I think “The Butler” and the other movies I’ve mentioned represent an eagerness to look back and face the past as we try to figure out what still needs to be done to ensure a better future. That seems pretty worthwhile to me.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements, and smoking.