Lee Daniel’s The Butler was the #1 movie three weeks in a row and has garnered tons of critical raves. Both facts made me suspicious. Could I, a pretty picky critic, really like a movie that had that much praise from other people? The answer is a resounding yes.
I enjoyed every single minute of this movie. I laughed and cried. I was taken back in time and reminded of how far the country has come and how much is still has to accomplish. Every scene was tightly written and beautifully shot. All the performances were wonderful, from the main players to the many cameos. The only thing wrong with this movie is that it ended.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler, so called for legal reasons, not for ego, is based on the true story of a butler, named Eugene Allan, who served 34 years in the White House, from President Truman to President Reagan and lived to see a black man, Barack Obama, take the highest office in the land. (The story is based on a 2008 Washington Post article, “A Butler Well-Served by the Election,” by Wil Haygood.) Though largely true, the movie script took some pretty significant “creative licenses,” and I think those decisions worked well. The purpose of a movie is to tell a story, not deliver a diary, so as long as those creative licenses are true to the spirit of the original tale, they’re okay.
It’s 1926. Slavery has ended but you might not know that if you were in the cotton farms in Macon, Georgia. The white owners still rule as if their fields were their fiefs, and the share croppers have no choice but to obey. One horrible day, young Cecil Gaines is working in the fields with his parents. The farm owner’s son grabs his mother Hattie Pearl (Mariah Carey) from the rows of cotton and pulls her into a shed and rapes her. Then he shoots his father dead with a bullet to the head. As the dirt is piled over his father’s body, Cecil is taken away by the matriarch of the farm to the grand house, where she turns Cecil into a house servant. Step by step she teaches him the art of anticipating the needs of those he serves and disappearing into the woodwork. He’s a quick learner, and it’s a lot easier serving white people tea than pulling cotton. By the time he’s a teenager though, he’s seen enough lynched bodies–Georgia is too dangerous for him–so he heads north.
Cecil (Forest Whitaker) finds himself working at a deliriously fancy restaurant in Washington D.C., where he serves many important political players. More importantly, he meets Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), whom he marries and builds a good life with in the city.
Impressed by Cecil’s meticulous manners, the head of personnel for the White House staff, offers him a job. In a hilarious scene, Cecil meets the maitre’d Freddie Fallows (Colman Domingo), who dislikes Cecil, but Cecil, a star pupil of diplomacy and subtle flattery, wins over his new boss. Fallows knows he’s been snowed, but it was so well done, he appreciates Cecil’s skill and introduces him to the other members of the staff, who become Cecil’s life- long friends .This is head butler Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding) who becomes Uncle Carter to Cecil’s sons, and co-worker James Halloway (Lenny Kravitz). Starting as a pastry chef in President Truman’s administration, Cecil works his way up to butler, where he serves tea to President Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams) in September 1957, when the President decides, against the advice of his staff, to send troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, to integrate Central Little Rock High School.
As history marches forward fitfully, so does Cecil’s home life. Oldest son Louis (English-born David Oyelowo), instead of going to college to study, ends up as a Freedom Rider, risking his life to bring freedom to the South. While Louis is getting beat up trying to peacefully integrate a luncheonette in the South, Cecil is laying out the priceless gold-rimmed china and crystal goblets for a White House state event. It might sound as if this scene would be a laughable exercise in intercutting 101-A, but it works admirably, in fact it takes your breath away it’s that well done.
Joining Louis is his girlfriend Carol (Yaya Alafia), who grows increasingly radical, finally embracing violence as a member of the Black Panther party. Cecil and his son become irretrievably estranged. Cecil fears that he has given life to his son, only to have him kill himself fighting an intractable white system. And in some ways it’s true. Several times over the years, Cecil reminds the head of personnel that the Negro staff is not paid the same as the white staff. Cecil wants equal pay. Each time he asks, his request is met with silence. No, equal pay hasn’t become something to be expected yet. And Cecil is risking his steady job by his insistence.
After President John F. Kennedy (James Marsden, doing a perfect Kennedy accent) sees evidence in TV reports of the Ku Klux Klan and the horrible violence inflicted on the peaceful civil rights fighter, he admits to Cecil one night, “You know, I never really knew what you went through, but I now see it and it changed my heart.” Cecil, as usual, says little and silently takes away the President’s tray full of pills. Later, Jackie Kennedy (Minka Kelly), her pink suit covered with blood, gives Cecil one of her husband’s ties. He treasures it.
When Lyndon B. Johnson (a suitably rambunctious Liev Schreiber), while fighting the Vietnam War, also fights for Civil Rights with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Increasingly, in his role as observer at the highest level, but still in the role of a servant, Cecil feels he exists in two different worlds. His second son, Elroy (Tyson Ford), claims that his older brother Louis is fighting against the country. Elroy wants to fight for it. Disregarding his parents wishes, he goes to Vietnam. When he comes back in a casket, there’s not a dry eye in the house.
Gloria, increasingly lonely due to Cecil’s long hours at work, has been drifting into alcoholism, and flirting with adultery with neighbor Gina’s (Adriene Lewis) persistent boyfriend (Terence Howard). These are some of Oprah Winfrey’s most powerful scenes. You forget you’re watching Oprah—you’re just wrapped up in the domestic trials of an ordinary lonely woman whose children have left the nest. It’s a wonderful performance, second only to Forest Whitaker’s endlessly intriguing low-key portrayal.