The Butler (2013)
Directed by Lee Daniels
Forgive for a moment that Cecil Gaines of “The Butler” is only loosely based on the real-life accomplishments of White House server Eugene Allen. Director Lee Daniels, like most Hollywood play-callers, took some creative license in telling the story of the black butler, who served eight U.S. Presidents over the course of 34 years. But in the case of this incredible story, consider any reality icing on the cake.
When his father is murdered and his mother is stricken mad with grief, Cecil (Forest Whitaker) is moved from the cotton fields to the kitchen. Through his mastery in serving, Cecil works his way up the ranks, miraculously ending up with a job in the White House. Through his interactions with five Presidents, Cecil has a front seat to witness the American Civil Rights Movement unfold. But no amount of political strife can compete with the biting drama within the Gaines household. With his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) dealing with her husband’s prolonged absences by drinking, and his son Louis (David Oyelowo) defying his father’s wishes and fighting alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. for equal rights, Cecil is left to come home to the same opposition he was witness to at work.
Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers and other movie critics have bashed “The Butler” for not living up to its “based on a true story” tag. Who cares? Does anyone ever tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth when they tell a “true story”? No. But this time, the story that you do get is told with truth beyond what actually happened. It’s not about a man, it’s about a movement. “The Butler” is alternately tear-jerking and heart-warming. At times provocative, at times hard to watch, it presents a story that is, at all times, spell-binding in its glorious variety. It’s expectedly dramatic, but surprisingly hilarious. The undeniable chemistry (when they’re being friendly) between Cecil, Gloria, and their two sons is almost as raucously entertaining as the quips flying between Cecil and his staff, played by the delightful Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding, Jr.
It’s no secret that Oscar is a history-buff. It’s also been well-documented that he loves a movie that’s not afraid to push the envelope and make the simple case for equal rights. But even if he hated these things, he would have to be plain ignorant not to recognize the performances of this outstanding cast. Oprah Winfrey as the matriarchal queen of mean is almost a lock for an acting nomination. She goes to tremendous lengths to become a real person with real flaws. Having risen from poverty to one of the richest women on Earth has given Oprah the ability to play a character like Gloria, oppressed and struggling with hardships most Americans can’t even fathom. Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker is nearly perfect. I mean it. His riveting performance shows the vulnerable Cecil, the confident Cecil, and everything in between. He’s a force to be reckoned with.
Five Presidents: Eisenhower, Nixon, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan. Five actors: Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, and Alan Rickman. Williams sticks out like a sore thumb. He’s a great actor, but he’s too traditionally wacky to play such a serious role. Cusack’s prosthetic, Nixonian nose singlehandedly earns the Oscar for Best Makeup. Marsden isn’t exactly Greg Kinnear, but his nasally New England accent is spot-on. Schreiber is perhaps the best, since he’s less of a star and therefore not as easy to recognize. Sorry Liev, the truth hurts. Rickman’s deep, British Snape voice is far from Ronald Reagan, but Jane Fonda makes a great Nancy – even if their politics didn’t exactly align in real life.
“The Butler” is also an atmospheric wonder. Daniels throws you right into the middle of the Civil Rights movement by juxtaposing scenes of Louis and the Freedom Riders with the clean, crisp political setting of the White House at dinner time. It’s an inspiring and sobering reminder of both how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. Nearly 50 years after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, “The Butler” is a living history of the movement.
If the Academy Awards turned into the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2014, I would be shocked if “The Butler” didn’t hear shouts of “You get an Oscar! You get an Oscar! YOU get an Oscar!” throughout the night. It’s just that good. See it.
“The Butler” is now in theaters everywhere.