Lee Daniels’ 2013 drama “The Butler” is very loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American man who served as a White House butler for 34 years before retiring in 1986. During those years Allen served under 7 different presidents and became a beloved member of the White House staff. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is built on these handful of facts but goes on to invent its own story which is sometimes too overt and preachy but at other times intensely powerful.
In the film Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is the main character. His life is quite different from the real life of Eugene Allen. Cecil grows up on a cotton plantation and endures plenty of horrors. But a series of fortunate events sees him eventually being hired as a butler to the White House during the Eisenhower administration. During his years at the White House huge nation-changing events occur which not only effect the presidents he serves but his family at home.
Speaking of his family, Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong go heavy on the dramatic family dynamics. His wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is a boozing shrill whose attitude can change in a second. His oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) is a disgruntled young man who would rather be proactive in the fight for equality. His youngest son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) is the fun-loving baby of the family who enlists to go to Vietnam. They are all built for high drama and we get plenty of it. Some of it really works on an emotional level. Other times it feels contrived and utterly predictable.
The film seeks to create a historical profile chronicling race relations in the United States. Much of this is done surrounding the Louis character. He ends up going to a college down south where he partakes in various action groups. This leads to protests, arrests, and even encounters with the Klu Klux Klan. There are moments where the tension is incredibly well developed and the discomfort of what you’re watching is powerful. But there are also a few things that I couldn’t quite shake. For example Louis happens to be present at so many of the events that made headlines from the Alabama bus firebombing to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. His presence certainly helps out the story but feels more or less like plot devices.
But it’s Cecil who is the real attraction and Whitaker is amazing. He is the real heart of this picture and watching him age as the film moves forward makes you feel as if you’ve been on a journey with him. It is hard to gauge at times what Daniels thinks of the character but I thought he was compelling. I also loved the work of David Oyelowo. The 37-year old actor actually first appears as a teenager and is very convincing. But he’s even better as his character springboards into some of the film’s more powerful scenes. The supporting cast is strong and features Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, and Vanessa Redgrave just to name a few. Then there is the unusual assortment of actors who play the presidents. The strongest performances come James Marsden who plays Kennedy and Alan Rickman who plays Reagan. Perhaps the weakest is Robin Williams who is oddly cast as Eisenhower.
Even with the film’s ambition and deeply moving moments, “The Butler” still comes across as a big Hollywood piece. That’s not always bad. There are several big moments that work very, very well. But the further I got into the movie the more it felt scripted. Unlike the more raw and organic “12 Years a Slave”, this film seems to be more dependent on plot gimmicks and melodrama. It also can’t help but get a tad political specifically in the final third of the film. Still, I can’t downplay the great work by the cast led by Forest Whitaker. He’s simply brilliant. I also really enjoyed the smarter and more focused scenes which can be both inspirational and challenging. I just wish we had been given a few more of them.