The Butler an inspired history lesson
2.5 stars (out of four)
Lee Daniels’ The Butler serves up multiple stories of great moment and purpose over more than 80 years of U.S. ferment, and they’re almost too much for one movie to bear.
The film is the factually “inspired” account of one black butler’s devotion to eight U.S. presidents in the aptly named White House.
It’s an emotional father/son love story across multiple decades.
The Butler is also a sweeping history of the American civil rights movement, from the cotton-field slavery of the 1920s through the social unrest of the 1960s and up to the 2008 election of Barack Obama as the first African-American U.S. president.
To pack all this and more into a two-hour movie seems like madness, especially considering that title character Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker and loosely based on real White House butler Eugene Allen) is required to keep his emotions bottled up for most of the film.
It’s a bravura feat that is almost entirely interior, a marvel of containment, but we can always intuit what he’s thinking.
Cecil’s job serving America’s top leader requires absolute focus and discretion: “You hear nothing, you say nothing. You only serve,” he’s told on Day 1 of his White House assignment.
That’s tough to illustrate, much less make dramatic, but Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) has never been one to shirk from a challenge.
And this one comes with the Oscar catnip of not only Whitaker’s shining performance but also strong turns by Oprah Winfrey (as Cecil’s alcoholic wife Gloria) and David Oyelowo (as Cecil’s righteous and rebellious son Louis).
The movie opens in current times, with a 90-year-old Cecil staring at a portrait of George Washington, as he awaits a White House meeting that will symbolize his life’s work and dreams.
Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong (Game Change) soon flash us back to Cecil’s younger days, as a cotton picker in Macon, Ga., where he witnesses horrific brutality to his family at the hands of a racist white sharecropper.
A plantation elder (Vanessa Redgrave) takes pity on young Cecil and, in a gesture considered kindly for the era, she promises to train him to be a “house n---er” so he can escape violence.
Some 31 years and a mentor or two later, Cecil finds himself with a wife and two young sons and a new job as butler to President Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams) at the start of Ike’s second term of office.
The clock seems to tick faster as Cecil gets to know the White House backstage routines, with the kibitzing help of a cook and a fellow butler, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, respectively.
He’s obliged to keep up with changing administrations, from Republican to Democratic and back again, as Eisenhower is followed by John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Richard Nixon (John Cusack) and later Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman). A few presidents are skipped, wisely, avoiding a numbing countdown and allowing us to savour presidential turns that sometimes yield to caricature but are never less than entertaining. Some are even revealing, as is the case with Rickman’s multi-layered Reagan.
Outside of the dignified calm of the White House, there’s a riot goin’ on, with racially charged civil rights confrontations that involve Cecil’s headstrong son Louis, who is determined to participate in every protest going, from diner sit-ins to Freedom Rides to Black Panther fist-waving.
The life roles of Cecil and Louis couldn’t be different, something Daniels underscores by cutting between scenes of the father sedately serving toffs while the son is noisily assaulted by racist yokels.
The tension between a father espousing devotion and dignity and a son demanding justice helps maintain continuity in The Butler, as does another subplot involving Gloria’s depression and her illicit interest in a neighbour (Terrence Howard). Love bonds are really put to the test in the film.
Daniels isn’t the most subtle of directors, but he’s an arresting one. His casting choices are frequently inspired and he can be surprisingly conservative. The soundtrack, for example, has more classical music in it than it does rock, soul and R&B.
“We got two faces: ours and the ones we’ve got to show white people,” Cecil says in The Butler, giving voice to America’s unjust racial divide. The film covers a lot of ground with many players, sometimes risking collapse, but it never lets us forget the quest for wholeness at the heart of the story.
Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.