Arriving in theaters on the 50th anniversary of a pivotal year of the civil rights movement, Lee Daniels’ The Butler finds its namesake director taking on four volatile decades of history to deliver an ambitious panorama of events through the experiences of one man. The film’s true-life inspiration is Eugene Allen, a White House butler who served eight presidential administrations, from Truman to Reagan. He was also the subject of Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election.” Daniels’ and screenwriter Danny Strong’s adaptation takes significant liberties with Allen’s story to heighten the drama and to serve up a potent piece of Oscar bait, buttressed by a cast featuring a cavalcade of stars, not the least of which is Oprah Winfrey, who makes a return to film acting after a 15-year absence.
In this telling of Eugene Allen’s story, the protagonist becomes Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who we initially meet as an older man looking back at his long life. The rest of the film takes us through his experiences, with his voice-over occasionally commenting on events. This narrative device most immediately recalls Forrest Gump in the way that Gaines somehow manages to be involved in practically every significant event involving America’s tortured racial history.
The early years of Cecil’s life have the lurid, sensational elements that most resemble Daniels’ previous work. The action here begins in 1926, where eight-year-old Cecil lives and works as a sharecropper with his parents in Macon, Georgia. The villainous plantation boss (Alex Pettyfer) rapes Cecil’s mother (Mariah Carey, only the first of the film’s strange casting choices) and kills Cecil’s father when he protests. The traumatized Cecil is taken under the wing of the plantation’s matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) and taught to be a house servant. After some years in the home, a teenage Cecil leaves the house and sets out on his own.
Cecil makes his way to North Carolina, where the hungry and homeless young man is caught breaking into a hotel by the head butler (Clarence Williams III), who then gives Cecil a job at the hotel and his first training as a butler. Cecil is eventually hired to work in a luxury hotel in Washington DC, where he catches the eye of a White House staffer who recommends him to serve as a White House butler.
By this time, the now-adult Cecil lives with his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and their two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley). However, his long hours at the White House keep him away from his family for most of the time, causing strife at home. Much of The Butler is built upon numerous montage-driven sequences that rush through the successive administrations Cecil serves as a stoic and quietly dignified presence, and thoroughly apolitical—as the White House maître d’ (Colman Domingo), warns him, “We have no tolerance for politics at the White House.” Cecil, nevertheless, has a front-row view of very tumultuous historical events: school integration enforced by federal troops in Little Rock; JFK’s assassination; LBJ signing the Civil Rights Act and his subsequent Vietnam troubles; Nixon and Watergate; Reagan and the debate over sanctioning South Africa over apartheid.
And here is where the casting gets really weird, and where much of the eccentricities of this film lie: Robin Williams (!) as Eisenhower; James Marsden as JFK; Liev Schreiber as LBJ; John Cusack (!) as Nixon; Alan Rickman as Reagan; and finally, a surprisingly convincing Jane Fonda (of all people) as Nancy Reagan. As bizarre and wrong-headed as some of these casting choices are, the headlong rush of the march through history is presented here with a strong enough power that we accept these choices, or at the very least, are not given enough time to puzzle too much over them.
Beyond the history overview, the real dramatic heart of The Butler involves Cecil’s family life, especially the growing conflict between Cecil and his eldest son Louis. Louis, outraged at the treatment of black people in the South, becomes increasingly radicalized, forgoing the safe life his father wishes for him. He moves South to attend college and becomes involved in civil rights protests. He joins the lunch counter sit-ins and the Freedom Riders, which occasions two of the film’s most powerful scenes, including a montage cross-cutting the sit-in protests and the White House butlers serving fancy state dinners. In a sequence where the KKK savagely attack and firebomb a Freedom Rider bus, the camera placing us squarely within the bus, giving us a visceral sense of this terror-filled situation.
Cecil dutifully travels down South to bail Louis out of his arrest and imprisonment, but things come to a head one night at home when Louis, now a member of the Black Panthers, insults Sidney Poitier, calling him an “Uncle Tom,” and expresses contempt for Cecil’s profession, earning him a slap from his mother and causing Cecil to throw Louis out of his home, marking the start of a decades-long estrangement between father and son. Cecil has problems with Gloria as well, who feels neglected because of his dedication to his work. She turns to alcohol and is tempted by the ministrations of a next-door neighbor (a slyly comic Terrence Howard).
Oprah Winfrey’s performance deserves some mention here. Winfrey, though she has considerably less screen time than Whitaker and Oyelowo, makes a great impression, and proves to be quite game at tweaking her image as the boozy and feisty wife. However, she never quite succeeds at disappearing into her character, as much as she tries. There still remains a meta-layer of the media personality she has spent so many years cultivating that she can’t quite shake. Still, she is eminently entertaining here, and her final scenes with Whitaker are very moving.
Lee Daniels, who previously made idiosyncratic and wildly eccentric films such as Shadowboxer, Precious, and The Paperboy, greatly reins in these impulses and attempts a much more mainstream and respectable prestige piece. However, Daniels brings a uniquely skewed approach to the material that retains some of the personality that is much more evident in his previous work, a personality that transcends the shallowness and obviousness of Danny Strong’s broad, bullet-point presentation of American history. This, combined with impressive performances by Whitaker and Oyelowo, as well as some frankly bizarre casting choices elsewhere, makes Lee Daniels’ The Butler a fascinating work that retains its interest well beyond the earnest sentimentality of its scenario. Despite its flaws, The Butler ultimately is very emotionally involving, largely due to Whitaker’s magisterial presence.