Directed by Lee Daniels; written by Danny Strong; starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Elijah Kelly, Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding Jr, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Live Schrieber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda
Despite its many charms, the film “The Butler” struggles to capture American political, social and cultural history from the 1950s to the present day. It’s a well-meaning and frequently enjoyable film with an all star cast, loving period detail (down the uniforms worn by 1960s US postal workers) and a genuine affection for both its topic and characters.
At 132 minutes, “The Butler” is both too long and too short, defeated by the task it has set itself – a virtual history of the American Civil Rights movement through the eyes of one man. That man is Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker, whose dignified performance is surely ripe for an Academy Award nomination – and the film is worth seeing for Whitaker’s acting alone. He’s a black man who becomes a butler in the White House in the 1950s, and witnesses Presidential history first-hand through numerous administrations over more than thirty years. The film is based on a true story of Eugene Allen, the subject of a feature article in the Washington Post on the eve of Barack Obama’s election in November 2008.
Growing up in the rural south prior to World War II, Cecil (spoiler alert!) witnesses both the rape of his mother and murder of his father by a white southern landowner. Taken in by a kindly old southern matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave), he learns how to be a “house nigger” (the movie’s term, not mine), carefully and quietly serving the white plantation owners.
To survive as a black man in 1950s and 1960s America, Gaines needs to keep his emotions in check. He finds his way into bar tending, then a fancy Washington DC hotel. From there he is recruited to serve as a butler in the Eisenhower White House.
All of Gaines’ fellow butlers are black men. He works there for the next thirty-plus years from Eisenhower (played by an unusually low-key and badly cast Robin Williams) to Kennedy (James Marsden, who sounds the part does not look it) to Johnson (Liev Schrieber, who tries hard, but never reaches the “larger than life” sense of his character) to Nixon (an incongruously cast John Cusack, who appears to have lengthened his nose for the part, and does a valiant but unsuccessful job at capturing this most complex of presidents) to Reagan. Ford is barely mentioned and I do not recall Carter appearing. You see what I mean? The enormity of this topic conspires to defeat the film-makers’ best intentions.
Ronald Reagan is played by British actor Alan Rickman, the most successful presidential portrayal. How is it that Americans can play Brits and Brits play Americans so well – think Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln? Worth pondering. Jane Fonda plays Nancy Reagan, in one of the “The Butler’s” best in-jokes. Fonda was once one of the most radical actors, including a notable visit to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. So when Fonda plays a iconic conservative First Lady, the result is, well, slyly funny. She’s also devilishly good in the cameo role.
Along the way, Cecil marries Gloria, who is played by Oprah Winfrey. Younger viewers may not recall that Winfrey has had an illustrious acting career, gaining an Oscar nomination for her role in Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple”, as well as starring in “Beloved”.
Cecil and Gloria have two kids: Charlie, the younger (Elijah Kelly), goes to Vietnam. Louis, the older one (David Oyelowo), lives through a breath-taking sequence of historical events (Forest Gump-like): He is a “freedom rider” for civil rights in the south in places like Birmingham, Alabama, is arrested sixteen times, joins up with the Reverend Martin Luther King, and even sits with King prior to King’s assassination in Tennessee. He later becomes a radical black activist, helps to found the Black Panther Party and has a girlfriend who looks exactly like Angela Davis.
Martin Luther King (played by Nelsan Ellis) supplies a useful dramatic addition to the story. When Louis embarrassingly says to King that his father is just a butler, King gives an articulate defense of African-American butlers and maids. As the Salon review summarises:
Black domestic workers, King tells Louis, have played an important role in the struggle for civil rights…. Maids, butlers, nannies and other domestics have defied racist stereotypes by being trustworthy, hardworking and loyal…. In maintaining other people’s households and raising other people’s children, they have gradually broken down hardened and hateful attitudes. Their apparent subservience is also quietly subversive.
Did King ever say this? I have not been able to find it, at least not yet. But the point of the film is that King COULD have said it, even if he did not. It’s at this point that “The Butler” starts to gain some of its power that it has given away through too much narrative and incident. If, like me, you lived in the United States during the development of the Civil Rights movement, “The Butler” may have special meaning. It dramatises many of the events, including some we can only guess at (how various Presidents dealt with the race issue), and ultimately is both moving and memorable.
Gaines lives long enough in the film (as did his inspiration Eugene Allen) to see Obama elected to the Presidency in 2008. Thankfully, we are spared an Obama appearance – although Orlando Eric Street was originally cast to play the current President, but does not appear. (Apparently Barack Obama turned down the invitation to play himself.) Plenty of time left for that.
Footnote: Will Whitaker win an Oscar for his role? His character – ageing about sixty years throughout the course of the film – is just the sort of role that the “Academy” loves. But here’s a prediction: he is nominated but does not win, losing out to someone in a “flashier” film such as Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips”, Robert Redford in “All is Lost” or – most likely – Chiwetel Ejiofer in “12 Years a Slave”.
Trivia corner: A few years ago, Whitaker turned down the chance to play Obama in the film “My Name is Khan”.