There’s no denying the stumbles that mar this alternately riveting and risible historical epic (big stars in bad makeup doing cameos as American presidents – yikes!). Yet Lee Daniels’ The Butler holds you, provokes you and ultimately moves you. It’s a huge task, trying to detail the battle between Uncle Tom-ism and radicalism that divided African-Americans during civil rights movements between 1957 and 1986. And to do it through one man, Cecil Gaines (a stellar Forest Whitaker), a White House butler who served seven presidents, defines risky.
Props for ballsiness to Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels (Precious) and Emmy-winning screenwriter Danny Strong (Recount, Game Change). As for the legal ruling that Daniels’ name be added to the title to not infringe on a 1916 silent short called The Butler, I’m saying bullshit.
The Butler (sue me, that’s what I’m calling it) begins with five words that always arouse suspicion: “Based on a true story.” For starters, Cecil Gaines never existed. There was, however, Eugene Allen, a White House fixture for 34 years until he retired as head butler in 1986. Eugene, a widower, did live long enough to attend the historic swearing-in of Barack Obama, as Cecil does in the fi m. For strict adherence to facts, that’s mostly it.
The backstory that The Butler gives Cecil is fiercely melodramatic. On a segregated Georgia plantation in 1926, young Cecil watches his mother (Mariah Carey) raped and his father murdered by a white owner (Alex Pettyfer). Taken in as “house nigga” by the family matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave), Cecil soon flees, picking up pantry jobs that lead to employment at an elegant D.C. hotel and then 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. These incidents are meant to indicate the fear that builds subservience into Cecil’s DNA.
At the White House, Cecil shows a humility that disarms fellow servants (Lenny Kravitz and a very fine Cuba Gooding Jr.) and white leaders of the free world. It’s the quickie presidential drop-ins that nearly sink the film. As Dwight Eisenhower, Robin Williams barely registers. James Marsden’s JFK is all sweet martyr. Liev Schreiber’s LBJ spouts racial slurs but supports key civil rights bills. John Cusack’s Richard Nixon supports his own neuroses. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter (seen in news clips) get no stars to play them. Alan Rickman’s Ronald Reagan (Jane Fonda plays Nancy) offers Cecil kindness while hypocritically supporting apartheid. Silent Cecil stands and waits. What’s roiling inside him? Ask his family.
It’s the family angle that gives The Butler its heat. Whitaker works beautifully with Oprah Winfrey as Gloria, Cecil’s not-so-dutiful wife. Gloria sublimates her frustration over her husband’s 24/7 devotion to the Oval Office by finding sham solace in booze and a sleazy a air with a neighbor (Terrence Howard). Winfrey is a full-throttle wonder, filling her role with heart soul and a healing resilience. It’s Gloria who tries to give Cecil common ground with their two sons, neatly divided in their politics. Daddy’s boy Charlie (Elijah Kelley) enlists for Vietnam. Rebellious Louis (a deeply affecting David Oyelowo) veers from Martin Luther King to the militancy of Malcolm X. Louis’ takedown of Sidney Poitier as Hollywood’s Uncle Tom is a notveiled attack on Cecil. Dramatic sparks, a Daniels specialty, really fly in this scene. What a shame the Daniels roar is often muffled by prestige-picture respectability. At its best, The Butler lets us into Cecil’s head and his dawning consciousness. Dinah Washington is heard twice on the soundtrack singing “I’ll Close My Eyes.” But it’s watching Cecil open his eyes, in Whitaker’s reflective, powerfully understated performance, that fills this flawed film with potency and purpose. Striving really does bring its own glory.