Director: Lee Daniels
Writers: Danny Strong and Wil Haygood
Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, and Elijah Kelly
An old Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) sits on a chair in a hall at the White House. As he waits he looks around the hall and remembers his life. Cecil grew-up in a 1920s Georgia Plantation where he worked the fields as an eight year-old boy with his mother, Hattie (Mariah Carey) & father, Earl (David Banner).
One day the son of the plantation owner, Thomas (Alex Pettyfer), grabs Hattie and takes her to the shed and rapes her. After leaving the shed Thomas is confronted by Earl. Without a second thought Thomas unholsters his revolver and shoots Earl dead. Thomas’ mother, Annabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), having pity in Cecil brings him into the house and trains him to be a house servant.
Years later Cecil leaves the plantation to make a new life. Eventually, unable to find work and hungry, he breaks into a hotel to eat a cake on display at a window. Caught by the main servant, Maynard (Clarence Williams III), Cecil asks for a job stating he knows how to be a house servant. Maynard takes him on and over time helps Cecil get another job at a hotel in Washington D.C.. From there he impresses the White House staff manager, R.D. Warner (Jim Gleason), and obtains a position as a butler in the White House under Eisenhower (Robin Williams). Cecil would then serve under eight Presidents.
The story of The Butler is inspired by the life of Eugene Allen but not based on it. The main key difference is Cecil’s oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo). Allen had only one son, Charlie, who did serve in Vietnam similar to Cecil’s second son in the film. But the character of Louis is entirely fictitious.
Louis is a necessary construct for the film. It is his character that creates the dramatic conflict. Where Cecil is stoic and silent to the racism he faces and sees everyday, Louis challenges the status-quo. Unfortunately the character is too much. It wasn’t enough to make Louis a Freedom Rider, he also had to be part of every major civil rights event as well as present with the great leaders of the time. He was on the bus that was fire bombed, he was arrested at sit-ins of white only sections of business, he was in the room with MLK before he was shot, he was there when Malcolm X spoke.
The pacing of the film is also off. The first half of the film drags while the second half moves quickly. This also correlates to the quality of the performances. Before Cecil arrives at the White House most of the secondary actors seem to be just reading lines, while after we are watching true performances.
Another negative is the all-star cast. A previous reviewer–unfortunately I forgot who–correctly states their involvement distracts from their performance. Since each actor is in only a few scenes, after you have gotten over the realization so-and-so is playing so-and-so, they are gone from the film. Also, by going with such famous faces to play historic characters the unfortunate use of poor prosthetics further distracts from good performances–John Cusack as Nixon and Liev Schrieber as LBJ come to mind.
As for the good, both Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines and Oprah Winfrey as his wife Gloria deliver stellar performances. You feel the love each has for the other throughout their lives, and you feel the bad during their rough times. The family dynamic between them and their two sons, Louis and Charlie (Elijah Kelly) is grounded and from a loving place. The make-up artists also did excellent work in aging both Whitaker and Winfrey through the decades.
Ultimately The Butler suffers under the weight of its own self-importance. What could have been a well constructed generational family portrait during a turbulent time in American History, instead becomes a very special television movie of the week with a rolodex worth of special guest stars.
Grade = C