Imagine your time on Earth began as a black man, young enough to see your father shot in the head in a cotton field with no repercussions for the shooter and you ultimately lived long enough to see Barack Obama elected as the first black President of the United States. Those two events alone would be enough to shock you to your core when placed side-by-side, but now imagine not only living through those two experiences, but also the events that transpired over the 82 years in-between and viewing them from a vantage point unlike any other.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler sets before it a daunting task of first introducing us to Cecil Gaines at the tender age of eight (Michael Rainey Jr.) as he watches his father fall with a bullet wound to the head before introducing us to the 34 years he would ultimately serve eight presidents as a White House butler. It’s too much for one movie to handle. And once the movie ends, and if you have the nerve, just try comparing your life to the one lived by Cecil Gaines and you’ll find there are few comparisons to the struggles he faced as presented here. Not only is it too much for one movie to handle, it’s more than any one life should endure.
Based on the true story of Eugene Allen (changed to Cecil Gaines for the film), The Butler follows Gaines’ life and focuses as much on Cecil (Forest Whitaker) as it does those around him, including his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and his two sons, Charles (David Banner) and Louis (David Oyelowo). This, of course, may be a point of contention for many as Allen only had one son, the Louis character was created for the sake of the film, and he plays a large role.
As one president moves into the White House and another moves out, we’re witness to the inner mechanics of the White House servant staff, which includes not only Cecil, but considerable roles for Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr., both turning in strong performances as this film, in conjunction with Fruitvale Station earlier this year, prove there are more than enough talented black actors out there, they only need be given the chance.
In the lead role as Cecil, Whitaker turns in a fine, subdued performance. Growing up on a cotton farm, working inside the house, serving the man that murdered his father and his family, Cecil’s education wasn’t one of schooling, but in life and it served him well enough to get away from that cotton farm and by chance land a job at 15 (played by Aml Ameen) as a house butler. He learned his craft, integrated himself and gained the trust of his white employers and was soon recommended for a job at the White House. The film allows you an opportunity to respect and feel compassion for Cecil, but at the same time does a great job of maintaining a certain level of concern for his well-being as his voice over reminds us, “Any white man could kill us at any time and not be punished for it.”
As Cecil’s story guides the narrative through the presidents he serves in the White House, we’re greeted to the realities of the outside world through his son Louis (who didn’t exist in real life). Louis heads off to college where he’ll become one of many Freedom Riders and eventually join the Black Panther movement, much to his father’s concern. With his performance, Oyelowo proves we should ignore his roles in films such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Jack Reacher where he plays characters that act as nothing more than storytelling cliches. Here he brings life and passion to a character as well as a level head able to think for himself.
For that matter virtually all of the performances in this film are impressive. Winfrey is sure to gain a share of kudos from all as she brings a lot of varying qualities to a character that must run the gamut of character traits over the course of 34 years of a person’s lifetime. This includes playing a character that becomes and overcomes being an alcoholic, a concerned mother, an ignored wife, an adulterous wife and a loving wife. In her, and all that I’ve described, you can see the uphill battle this film faced and, for the most part, it succeeds.
Scripted by Danny Strong based on the Washington Post article by Wil Haygood, The Butler probably does bite off more than it can chew, but how else can you tell the story of a life that was touched and affected by so many events? Eugene Allen’s one real son, Charles, did fight in Vietnam and Allen did meet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (played in the film by Nelsan Ellis), however, while the film uses Louis to add a face we know to the harsh realities of the world outside. In reality, those were realized from within the White House. This, for me, is hardly an issue.
Cecil, as was Allen, was in the White House kitchen when John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) was assassinated, and he served President Nixon (John Cusack), Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams) and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) to name a few.
In one scene we watch as Lyndon B. Johnson, played by Liev Schreiber, barks orders while sitting on the toilet, his dog curled up at his feet. What conversations this man must have been privy to could probably fill pages in history books and here we have director Lee Daniels attempting to fit it within the confines of a 132-minute movie. It’s not possible, but I’d argue this is probably the best you could hope for and it’s damned respectful at that.
I never felt beaten over the head with race issues even though there’s hardly a frame of the film where the issue isn’t front and center. A fantastic line near the end reminds us of our constant focus on the events of the Holocaust while the treatment of the African American here at home went on for over 200 years, and when you consider that quote I mentioned above, you can’t help but think of Florida and Trayvon Martin today.
The Butler is not perfect, it simply can’t be unless it had been turned into a 12-hour mini series. But it strikes all the right cords to remind us and inform us of our nation’s history and the varying strengths of people such as Cecil Gaines and, while he was fabricated for the film, people such as Louis that have helped shape our history and make it a better place to live, while reminding us the work isn’t yet done.