Movie review: 'The Butler' really did do it for the presidents

For the News-DemocratAugust 15, 2013 

What It's About

The fascinating life and times of Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker), a White House butler during the tenure of eight presidents, is turned into a sweeping saga of America's civil rights movement and other historical bellwethers in "Lee Daniels' The Butler."

The well-directed and well-acted film is based on the true story of Eugene Allen, whose stellar domestic service for our presidents and their families was the subject of a 2008 Washington Post article. Screenwriter Danny Strong ("Game Change") and director Lee Daniels ("Precious") have expanded his chronicles into a Forrest Gump-like foray into the turning points of four crucial decades.

Packing an emotional wallop, the film is rich in details, never mind the convenience of storylines. We first see Cecil as an 8-year-old boy working the cotton fields in Georgia in the 1920s, and discovering the harsh reality of bigotry.

Opportunity knocks when Clarence Williams III ("Mod Squad") teaches him the finer points of waiting on wealthy white folks, and soon he's working at a ritzy hotel in Washington D.C., where his pleasant, unobtrusive demeanor catches the eye of a White House staffer.

Thus, he begins serving Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams), listens to vice president Richard Nixon (John Cusack) curry favor for votes over Kennedy, reads storybooks to Caroline Kennedy, and gets invited to a state dinner by Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda, hell just froze over). Presidents Carter and Ford are seen only in news footage.

Gaines/Allen retired in 1986, but the story doesn't end there, for his support of presidential candidate Barack Obama is featured (hence, the newspaper article about a domestic witnessing an African American president).

While Cecil is lauded for his work, at home is a different story. Troubles abound with alcoholic wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), rebellious son Louis (David Oyelowo), who becomes a Freedom Fighter then later a Black Panther, and dutiful son Charlie who signs up to fight in Vietnam.

Performances

The overall ensemble is superb, from tiny roles (Vanessa Redgrave as a plantation owner) to lead Forrest Whitaker ("The King of Scotland"), an actor of understated power who shines in every part he undertakes. He is masterful at showing this quiet, decent man, who learned well how to be subservient for a shot at a better life.

The stunt casting of the presidents' aside, everyone is pretty much on the money -- especially Liev Schreiber as a cussing agitated LBJ, James Marsden as a concerned JFK, and Alan Rickman as a sharp Ronald Reagan.

Whether or not the real guy was in the room when presidents needed to talk through their history-altering change of hearts, it sure makes for good melodrama.

A very funny Cuba Gooding Jr. and singer Lenny Kravitz are also quite good as fellow domestic help at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

But the standouts, besides Whitaker, are Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo. We knew Oprah could act based on her Oscar-nominated turn in "The Color Purple," but that was before she became the global mogul. So, at first you can't help but think 'That's Oprah!" Then she courageously disappears into her character -- a frustrated wife who develops a drinking problem, then turns over a new leaf, supporting her husband as they deal with family heartbreak, sorrows and triumphs. She shows the development and different sides to the character in an impressively layered portrayal.

Oyelowo soulfully takes us through the horrifying examples of ugly racism experienced by civil rights activists. It's hard to watch, but necessary to document what really happened during the tumultuous era.

What Works

It's a tribute to director Lee Daniels that so many actors who have worked with him before, in "Precious" and "The Paperboy," came on board to be part of this outstanding cast. His choices, for the most part, are effective, particularly in describing the Kennedy Assassination and other significant events. Screenwriter Danny Strong has added some lighter moments, and the dinner table fight about Sidney Poitier is a fine example of using humor to defuse an argument.

At times, Daniels can get a bit heavy-handed and repetitive, but for the most part, he wisely chose what to highlight visually for emphasis, instead of preachy lectures.

By showing African-American families socializing in the 1960s and '70s, the film underlines the pall of discrimination that they had to endure, from small indignities to bigger humiliations. For those not familiar with the turbulence that marked civil rights' achievements, the film does a good job of capturing the brutality that happened.

What Doesn't Work

There are a few moments where the story veers into soap opera, and sometimes it's schmaltzy, but you can't deny the film's overall power.

It is a remarkable achievement. The filmmakers swung for the fences, and they succeeded in making a big important film that does matter, particularly in 21st century America. Attention must be paid.

3 1/2 stars out of 4

Director: Lee Daniels

Starring: Forrest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, lan Rickman, Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Jane Fonda, Liev Schrieber, Terrence Howard

Length: 2:12

Rated: PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.

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