Review by Pete Mason
Through the lens of sharecropping serfdom and amid racial tensions and prejudice, Forrest Whitaker portrays Cecil Gaines as the title character in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” taking aspects of Martin Luther King’s ideals and quietly making racial progress in his own way, working for seven presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan, over the span of 30 years. Cecil is all but oblivious to the world outside the White House, only seeing passing moments on television that capture the country as it was in the 1950s and ’60s. But with his co-workers and family, he soldiers through a difficult era to be black in the south – or the nation’s capitol, for that matter. While Cecil is fictional, his life story is based on that of Eugene Allen.
Raised in Georgia during the Depression, Cecil picks cotton alongside his parents, all but tied to the land 60 years after the Civil War. He witnesses his mother getting raped, his father killed for standing up to the white man who raped her, and he is quickly taught his place by southern whites, raised to be a ‘house nigger.’ Cecil grows up to respect the role of a butler, working in North Carolina, then a hotel in Washington D.C., and finally to the White House, a professional who is scarred by his early life, but moving forward to ensure he and future Gaines’ would not live in a world of the racial prejudice that he experienced.
Forrest Whitaker plays Cecil from the 1950s through present day, aging incrementally and remaining steadfast throughout his career. Oprah Winfrey plays his wife Gloria, who evolves from drunk to sober, cheating to loyal, throughout the film; Gloria is by Cecil’s side throughout his life in the midst of good times with their friends and family and tragedy both national and personal. Now a Lee Daniels’ regular, Lenny Kravitz is stoic working alongside Cecil in the White House, and Cuba Gooding Jr. gives his best performance since “Jerry Maguire,” although that bar isn’t set very high after the last 15 years. (“Snow Dogs,” anyone?)
Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo) attends Fisk University, where he takes part in sit-ins in the prejudiced south and pushes for change non-violently yet actively, while his father take a more incremental route, two alternate philosophies on the road to gaining equality for African-Americans. Louis is a Freedom Rider, facing racism and violence first-hand in Alabama and Mississippi, spending time in jail and becoming estranged from his father in the process. When they do reconnect during Nixon’s first term, he is a member of the Black Panther Party, a development that does not sit well with his parents and leads to future division. Likewise, Louis as a Black Panther contradicts with his brother Harold who enlists to fight in Vietnam, leading to a brother vs. brother conflict.
An all-star cast portrays the Presidents from the 1950s to the 1980s, although Ford and Carter are not portrayed in the film, perhaps because their combined presidencies lasted 6 years, perhaps to progress the story. Still, Robin Williams plays Eisenhower as mellow and hoping to end racial tension post Brown vs. Board of Education; JFK is James Marsden in a spot-on portrayal, capturing his youth and anger at not being able to do more to call for an end to racial intolerance; Liev Schreiber is a convincing LBJ, giving presence to both his Texan attitude and soft side; John Cusack is Nixon, at least in voice and acting, but doesn’t exactly look like him, but slick and maneuvering, even as Vice President when he hopes a chat with the domestic staff will lead to votes from the black community in 1960. Alan Rickman as Reagan is a bold choice that pays off in all too brief scenes. Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan is sure to anger some on the right but her steady performance captures the First Lady we all recall with her compassion, red dress and tall hair.
A brief but moving scene has Martin Luther King, Jr (Nelsan Ellis) sharing his view of the role of a domestic servant, one that moves quietly towards racial progress. History is seen through Cecil’s eyes and framed by those of the era who pushed for racial tolerance and intolerance. Truly the important aspect of Cecil is not just his position as a butler in the White House, but also the evolution of the presidency through his eyes and how progress can be built up with one administration, only to be sidetracked by the next and morally debated by yet another.
Cecil pushes for raises for the black staff during the film, only to be denied equal pay for equal work, a subtle reference to the failed E.R.A. amendment of the time. Only a chat with President Reagan leads to this change in policy. He is invited with Gloria to the State Dinner as a guest of the Reagans, an awkward moment for Cecil, as he is being served by his own staff-mates, but Gloria revels in the moment and enjoys the spectacle and treatment; this is a powerful, shifting scene in the film.
Cecil has a change of heart when seeing his own son’s past, the racial struggles and progress made, with a backdrop of the fight against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s. Father and son reunite with common purpose and risk, one that brings closure to their part in the civil rights era of the country.
After retirement, the movie skips ahead to 2008, where Cecil and Gloria are wearing Obama/Biden shirts and pressing on through their years. A near final scene where Cecil is watching the election returns in November 2008 and a black man, Barack Obama, is President-elect of the country, makes for a powerfully emotional ending and brings full circle all that Cecil Gaines experienced in his life, from the cotton fields of Georgia to the White House in Washington D.C, where he attends the inauguration of President Obama.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is directed by Lee Daniels and written by Danny Strong. It is rated PG-13 for mild language and violence and is playing at many local theaters now.