Lee Daniels’ The Butler

I like what I like, and just because the critics have lauded your work, or it’s popular – that doesn’t mean I will be inclined to join the herd.  Some of director Lee Daniels’ filmography includes movies that I don’t prefer.  That’s no knock on his filmmaking, but rather a commentary on his subject matter. I’ve seen Monster’s Ball, which he produced, and I thought it was an excellent film.  It could not be described as a “feel good” movie, however.  I don’t typically enjoy “heavy” movies that settle over the viewer and linger long after the credits have rolled.  For this reason, I avoided Daniels’ Precious, though I understand that it was a powerful film.  With The Butler, he has decided to do that annoying Tyler Perry thing where he makes sure that his name precedes the movie title,* but I’ll overlook it – because The Butler is quite simply a tour-de-force contribution to contemporary American cinema.  It deserves immediate consideration alongside other American classics with the manner in which it interwove American history seamlessly with wonderful dramatization.  This is arguably the best movie of the summer, and a must-see film.

The Butler is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American butler who served in the White House for 34 years, which is my entire lifetime.  Forest Whitaker (The Last Stand) stars as Cecil Gaines, a fictional version of the titular character inspired by Allen.  The art of being a butler, particularly one at the White House, requires a certain temperament and character.  The movie begins by depicting the circumstances that shaped Cecil’s life and developed his character.  He grew up on a cotton farm in the South, where his father (David Banner, This Christmas) worked as a sharecropper.  Although slavery was long over, the power dynamic remained unchanged in many Southern states.  At an early age, Cecil learned that resistance against the status quo might cost you your life.  As meager compensation for a family tragedy that he witnessed, Cecil was brought in from the field into the house, where he would be trained as a “house nigger,” cultivating a strict attention to detail that would serve him well in his life’s work.

Cecil eventually left the cotton farm and found work as a servant, working under the tutelage of an elder butler (Clarence Williams III, American Gangster) who further refined Cecil’s skillset.  He explained to Cecil that there is one face that you show Whites, and there is your true face that you show everyone else.  I was conflicted in my perception of Cecil’s work at various times throughout the movie.  On the one hand I was put off by the inherent subservience of his tasks, particularly the necessity with which he faded into the background, as if the notice of his mere presence would be an affront to his employer.  On the other hand, there is a quiet dignity in the position, and the attention to detail indicated an impressive work ethic.

Eventually Cecil’s impeccable job performance landed him a position at a posh Washington hotel, which is where a White House employee was so impressed that he notified Cecil when a service position became available at the White House.  Cecil began working at the White House during the Eisenhower Administration and would come to know each President’s eccentricities and disposition.

The film chronicles Cecil’s tenure at the White House as America evolves over the decades and through the various Administrations.  Initially his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey, Beloved) is pleased with Cecil’s esteemed new position, which affords him the ability to be sole provider for his family.  However, she eventually begins to feel neglected as he spends more time away from home, enraptured with his job.  He becomes fast friends with fellow employees Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr., Red Tails) and James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz, The Hunger Games).  Gooding turned in a scene-stealing performance as the crudely affable Carter, while Kravitz added quiet gravitas to his slight role.  The film was rife with notable actors, which I will address later.

The Butler’s strength lies in its artful juxtaposition of Cecil’s life at the White House with the social upheaval of the 50s, 60s and 70s.  While Cecil worked daily in a sterile, sanitized environment, America raged beyond the White House walls, careening to and fro down an historical path.  Cecil’s eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo, Jack Reacher) was at the forefront of these tumultuous times, participating actively in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.  One of the more effective scenes in the movie depicted this juxtaposition perfectly, expertly highlighting the divide between father and son.  While Cecil meticulously sets banquet tables for a State Dinner, Louis and his classmates participate in a sit-in, where they are abused and taunted by White patrons.  As the father serves his country literally through servitude, his son rails against his country through active (though peaceful) resistance.  It is not until much later that father and son realize that they are not so different after all.

The Butler is an authentically American movie.  It should be mandatory viewing for anyone who wants a brief synopsis of a critical time period in American history.  Viewers who lived through the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War will recall those difficult times, and younger viewers may be startled at a glimpse into an America that is far different from the land we now call home.  Actual events from history were dramatized in startling fashion, and the fear that characters experienced was always underscored by the jarring reality that this in fact did happen.  There was a scene where Louis and his girlfriend Carol (Yaya Alafia, The Kids Are All Right) rode a bus on a “Freedom Ride” through the segregated South.  Their bus was stopped, and a racist mob descended upon them.  Their fear was palpable, and there were factual touches interspersed with the dramatization.  This is a testament to Daniels’ deft hand, and a slew of Oscar nominations should be forthcoming.

The performances in this film were amazing, as the cast includes a virtual who’s who of names, from Robin Williams (The Big Wedding) as Dwight Eisenhower to Jane Fonda (The Newsroom) as Nancy Reagan.  Cecil’s relationship with each president was unique, though he may have been partial to JFK (James Marsden, 2 Guns) due to his influential civil rights legislation and the fact that he brought a unique family dynamic to the White House with his youth and small children who brightened up the place.  The only President for which I noted a hint of disdain was old “Tricky” Dick Nixon, ably though briefly portrayed by John Cusack (The Frozen Ground).  Many characters were important figures in American history (past presidents and cultural icons), but were only minor pieces of the movie, like Martin Luther King, for example.  It is a testament to the film that so many wonderful actors played such small roles.  The film is weighty and substantial in every respect, from casting to direction.  Forest Whitaker embodied Cecil Gaines’ quiet strength, and his servitude belied an understated courage.  Whitaker gave the performance of a lifetime, and he should be in contention for another Academy Award.  Actually, you could tell me that any one of this prolific cast was in consideration for an Academy Award, and I would deem them worthy.

I loathe long-winded reviews, but how could I cut this short? It was a sweeping film that covered an expansive time period in American history, and I wouldn’t do the film justice if I didn’t address the more compelling aspects of the storyline and the attendant performances.  Some movies simply must be seen.  The Color Purple and Forrest Gump come to mind for some reason.  Even if you aren’t crazy about either of those movies – they had to be seen.  Similarly, The Butler is required viewing. Grade: A+

*After writing this review, it came to my attention that Daniels and the movie studio had legal reasons for titling the movie this way, so my comparison to Tyler Perry wasn’t warranted. Still funny though!

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