Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines
Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines
David Oyelowo as Louis Gaines
Yaya DaCosta as Carol Hammie
Elijah Kelley as Charlie Gaines
Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Carter Wilson
Lenny Kravitz as James Holloway
Colman Domingo as Freddie Fallows
Terrence Howard as Howard
Adriane Lenox as Gina
Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower
James Marsden as John F. Kennedy
Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy
Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson
John Cusack as Richard Nixon
Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan
Jane Fonda as First Lady Nancy Reagan
Jesse Williams as James Lawson
Nelsan Ellis as Martin Luther King, Jr.
Clarence Williams III as Maynard
Alex Pettyfer as Thomas Westfall
Vanessa Redgrave as Annabeth Westfall
David Banner as Earl Gaines
Mariah Carey as Hattie Pearl
Directed by Lee Daniels
Some time shortly after the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, a number of media outlets searching for human interest stories about the meaning behind the first black president stumbled upon the story of Eugene Allen, a White House butler who’d worked for seven different administrations, moving within the heart of power during the most turbulent moments of the Civil Rights era. It was a story too good for many of them to pass up–including the White House which did indeed invite Allen for a photo-op after reading one version of the story. It’s such a good story that it was inevitable that Hollywood would make an attempt at it as well.
Fortunately, they have turned it over to the talented hands of Lee Daniels (“Precious: Based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”) who combines a solid vision for his story with an excellent chosen cast to overcome most of the deficits of Danny Strong’s (“Game Change”) uneven script.
At the front of the cast, and generally head and shoulders above it, is Forest Whitaker as our Eugene Allen doppelganger, Cecil Gaines. Born in rural North Carolina where he has little chance at doing better than his parents, both of whom are destroyed by the bigotry still rampant in the South 70 years after the end of the Civil War. The one thing he does get is some training as a personal servant and when he does finally flee the fields for the city, he is able to build those skills into the arsenal of a professional domestic worker. An arsenal formidable enough that he eventually comes to the attention of the White House and is hired onto its staff during the Eisenhower (Robin Williams) administration just in time to watch him struggle with the desegregation of Southern schools first hand.
An action which, though important to Cecil, is less important than his actual job. His skill at his craft has instilled a sense of pride in his work which Whitaker brings to the fore of almost everything Cecil does. A sense of pride which annoys his wife (Oprah Winfrey)who thinks, not entirely incorrectly, that he cares more for his job than herand confounds his son (David Oyelowo), a budding civil rights activist who sees his father’s work as insulting and barely removed from the slavery their people lingered under for so long.
In fact the scenes between Oyelowo, who grows and radicalizes from an adherent of non-violence to a founding member of the Black Panthers, and Whitaker tend to be the strongest part of the film, uniting both its personal and political stories into a series of potently painful shouting matches as father and son refuse to try and understand one another.
Unfortunately, they come very seldom as Cecil and Louis spends most of their time apart from one another in a manner that’s meant for their lives to reflect on each other’s but which actually hampers drama more than helping it.
In fact, Cecil spends most of his time apart from everyone, working hard with his fellow butlers (Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lenny Kravitz), while everyone else does whatever it is they do when he’s not around. Because Cecil is our point of view character, and the film loves to have him observing and interacting with the various Presidents who pass through the White House, the characters of his personal life tend to become ghosts as the film wears on, disappearing frequently and with little substance to them.
Which is a problem because as fun as it is to see some of the excellent impersonations of past presidents–Marsden’s Kennedy and Cusack’s fairly restrained Nixon are stand-outs–the drama is what’s going on at home with Cecil’s wife and children.
Even with the structural problems in place, Daniels and his cast make the thing work, and almost fly at several points anyway. Yeah, “The Butler” has some problems, but as preachy and inconsistent as it can get, an Oscar-worthy performance from Whitaker kicks most of the worst problems under the carpet and makes you forget about them, at least for a little while.