Eugene Allen was a White House butler who served under 8 presidents over a span of 34 years until retiring under the Reagan administration. Although his life is the inspiration for “Lee Daniel’s The Butler”, that’s about where any similarities end.
Forest Whitaker plays the long-time butler, whose name is changed to Cecil Gaines in the film, with a quiet reverence that is needed to compensate for the often emotional film. After growing up on a cotton farm, Cecil runs away and learns to work as a butler and server at country clubs, hotels, etc. Eventually he shows off his serving skills to the right person and gets a call to join the White House staff. Oprah Winfrey plays Cecil’s wife, Gloria, in arguably the film’s greatest performance, and David Oyelowo (“Jack Reacher”) turns in a solid performance as their son, Louis. Since this is an ensemble film, you will also see the familiar faces of Cuba Gooding Jr., Robin Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Fonda, John Cusack and a million other actors. Don’t get too attached to those names because you’ll probably only see them for about 90 seconds each.
Although the three lead actors are all fairly commendable, every other character in the film is either paper thin or a boring caricature. Cusack’s Nixon is laughably bad but slimy as expected, James Marsden’s portrayal of JFK comes complete with a shining halo, etc. With such a large cast of players, it can be difficult at times to distinguish who the film is really about. Sure, it follows the events of Cecil Gaines’ life, but he doesn’t really do anything for 90% of the film. In ultimate “Forrest Gump” fashion, things just happen around Cecil (and sometimes his son, Louis) and his mere presence at important events is supposed to substitute for an actual narrative.
Not that there is anything wrong with a civil rights film, but I wanted “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” to be more about the life of a White House butler over the course of 8 presidents. There are plenty of civil rights films out there (some that are better than this film), but very few films that give us a full narrative behind the White House gates.
That being said, this film does offer a few ideas not present in most civil rights films, and this is where the film’s best moments are found. For one, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film that captured 1960’s sit-ins the way this one does. After going off to college, Louis gets involved with freedom riders and other civil rights activists where he is trained for civil disobedience. We see black and white students for equal rights pushing each other around, slinging the N-word and degrading one another to practice for their sit-in at a local diner. Both the training scene and the real deal at the diner are intimately humiliating and well-executed.
The theme I really loved in the film was the clash of attitudes between African Americans born in the early-20th century and those born just after WWII. Cecil Gaines has been trained all his life to not speak on politics and to gently edge his way toward progress while Louis believes that direct, in-your-face action is the only way things will ever change. This struggle between the characters’ worldviews is easily the most interesting thing about the film.
Despite its potential ability to be a crowd-pleaser, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is a long, melodramatic tale which features elementary writing and hit-or-miss acting. Though it has its moments, I think “12 Years a Slave” will be the slavery/civil rights film everyone is talking about come awards season.