Lee Daniels' The Butler

Directed By: Lee Daniels

Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, David Oyelowo, Vanessa Redgrave, Mariah Carey, Robin Williams, Melissa Leo, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Alex Pettyfer, Yaya DaCosta, Colman Domingo, Aml Ameen, Orlando Eric Street, Nelsan Ellis, Alex Manette, Lenny Kravitz, and Jesse Williams

Filmmakers are taking us to school, and black history is front and center this year.  What's interesting about it is that Hollywood is shining light on obscure stories this year that never got the attention they deserved.  Earlier this summer, Fruitvale Station chronicled the injustice that befell Oscar Grant in the wee hours of that fateful New Year's Day several years ago.  Later in the fall, 12 Years a Slave will walk us through the atrocities committed upon free man Solomon Northrup as he's cast into slavery during the 19th century.  This weekend, Lee Daniels' The Butler is perhaps giving us one of the most powerful stories never told on the big screen, the story of White House butler Eugene Allen and the tumultuous history he watched unfold over the course of seven presidencies.  Class is definitely in session at the box office.

It's 1926 in the Deep South.  Young Cecil Gaines (Michael Rainey, Jr. [8] and Aml Ameen [15]) is learning about cotton by working in the fields with his father Earl (David Banner) and his mother Hattie Pearl (Mariah Carey).  Working for loose cannon Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer) and his mother Annabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), Cecil soon learns how dangerous the south is for a person of color.  Westfall sexually assaults his mother.  When his father stands up to Westfall for this atrocity, the white plantation owner shoots Earl in the head, instantly killing him.  A sympathetic Annabeth offers a grieving Cecil a chance to get away from the cotton fields and start working in their home as a "house nigger".  It's here where Cecil begins to hone his craft as a butler.

Knowing he couldn't stay in the south forever, Cecil (Forest Whitaker) leaves the Westfall plantation and begins traveling north, looking for food, shelter, and employment along the way.  In North Carolina, he breaks into a home for food and meets a butler by the name of Maynard (Clarence William III).  A nice older black gentleman fearful of what will happen to the boy if he continues on his own, Maynard takes Cecil in to work with him at this white man's house.  Here, Cecil masters his craft as a butler under Maynard's tutelage.  After some time, Maynard recommends Cecil for a position at a hotel in DC.  There, Cecil makes a name for himself as an excellent butler and starts a family with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey).  Soon, Cecil earns himself a spot working at the White House as a pantry man.  His son Louis (David Oyelowo), an ardent supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, is not too happy about his father going to work for a bunch of rich white men.  The film chronicles the next several decades of Cecil’s life during which he works for seven US Presidents and serves as a fly on the wall witnessing history that ripples throughout his personal life and the nation as a whole.

The Butler is a really, really good movie that's knocking on the door of greatness.  It's an intimate love letter to the black domestic, thanking him or her for providing an often thankless service to white men and showing their oppressors what strong black men and women really look like on a daily basis.  It's a thank you letter to the heroes of the Civil Rights Era for standing up to an unjust America and challenging the racists and bigots to do better if this experiment called democracy is really all about equality.  At the same time, The Butler is a historical drama done on the grandest scale for the unlikeliest figure.  Chronicling the Civil Rights Era, Vietnam, and many of the momentous events of the 20th century, Lee Daniels gives us an intimate look at our leaders and the decisions they made from the perspective of Cecil Gaines, a fictional version of real-life butler Eugene Allen.  Somehow, Daniels makes The Butler all of this, and I have lots of respect for the work he's done here.

The central focus of the film is the tumultuous relationship between father and son Cecil and Louis Gaines.  Their relationship on screen is the juxtaposition of two distinct profiles in courage and their clashing world views.  Symbolizing the black domestic, Cecil Gaines is a subversive figure that tries to move the needle of progress forward inch by inch on a daily basis.  He does so by getting up, going to work, and doing his job to the best of his ability.  In doing this, he defies all the malicious stereotypes that have festered in the minds of white men and women for generations.  On the other hand, we have Louis Gaines who takes a more aggressive approach.  He believes that we have to fight for our rights and that people aren't just going to give it to us.  He sees protest and bold action as the means to ignite meaningful national dialogue on racism and discrimination in America.  He doesn't want to move the needle of social progress forward gradually.  He wants to shove it forward.

The contrasting performances from Forest Whitaker and David Oyelowo couldn't more perfectly embody the stark differences between Cecil and Louis Gaines.  As Cecil, Whitaker gives a stately, understated performance in which his physical acting is far more potent than anything he says in the movie.  His demeanor as he witnesses bigotry, oppression, and occasional progress is always reserved but chock full of nuanced emotion.  It's exactly what Eugene Allen and many other black domestics had to do all their lives working in the homes of others.  This is undoubtedly Forest Whitaker's finest performance since The Last King of Scotland back in 2006.  For his part as the outspoken Louis, David Oyelowo is the exact opposite.  He gives a strong emotionally resonant performance fueled by a fiery passion for equality.  Having played the so-called "Black 007" for Daniels in The Paperboy last year, Oyelowo brings attitude to this substantive character. 

Beyond the performances from Whitaker and Oyelowo, Daniels frequently highlights the juxtaposition between Cecil and Louis by cutting the film in a way that mixes Cecil's life at the White House with Louis's life protesting in the white south.  As we watch Cecil serving dinner at the White House, we also witness Louis demand equal service at a diner in the Deep South.  Throughout The Butler, Daniels does this in such a way that the contrast between this father and son couldn't be more apparent.  If seeing is believing, Daniels gives us all the visuals we need to comprehend the profound differences between these two individuals and the reason for their bitter disconnect.

While there's an intimate story being told here in The Butler about a father and son, history is also unfolding in this period piece.  A full roster of 20th century historical icons are brought together in this one.  To bring these historical figures back to life, Lee Daniels needs an extremely talented crew.  His makeup department does some really outstanding work here.  They give us one historical figure after another getting all the details just right.  They give James Marsden a youthful, Bostonian look as JFK.  They make John Cusack a sweaty mess as Tricky Dick.  They turn Alan Rickman, the British actor who has given us Hans Gruber and Severus Snape, into Ronald Reagan.  Enough said.  Daniels' makeup department does some incredible work recreating historical figures and deserves some serious recognition in the upcoming awards season.

To say that The Butler has an all-star cast would be an understatement.  Beyond Forest Whitaker and David Oyelowo, we have the likes of Oprah, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Terrence Howard giving strong performances that are loaded with plenty of comedy.  Delivering their best performances in years, each of them is talking trash and clearly having a whole lot of fun on screen.  Additionally, we have a veteran roster portraying the men and women who have walked the halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Robin Williams gives a graceful performance as Dwight Eisenhower and reminds us why he should be tackling more serious films.  Liev Schreiber gives one hilarious depiction of LBJ and shows us his lighter side as this rough-around-the-edges Texan.  Alan Rickman gives us a reflective Ronald Reagan, while Jane Fonda gives First Lady Nancy Reagan a mystical aura in an uber-confident performance.  I could go on and on about the wonderful performances in this movie.  Just know this.  Daniels' star-studded cast delivers the goods.

As much as I enjoyed The Butler, I do have a couple of issues with the film.  First and foremost, the ending could have been more potent.  The real story of what happened to Eugene Allen and his family in 2008 during Obama's campaign is powerful enough on its own.  Rewriting the story undermines the emotional significance of this part of the film.  Also, some details are lacking from the central event depicted at the movie’s end.  Daniels doesn't give us the appropriate knowledge and assumes that the viewer has prior knowledge of the story.  That's no small mistake considering we're talking about a butler about whom the world did not know five or six years ago.

Second, this star-studded cast is not made equal.  One casting choice in particular is baffling, the decision to cast Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy.  The former Charlie's Angels star certainly has the beauty to physically embody the youthful First Lady.  However, she lacks the acting chops to bring emotional depth to the moments that matter in the film, particularly in the aftermath of JFK's assassination.  More specifically, her emotional breakdown in this key moment looks undeniably fake.  Her performance is the stuff of horror movies, not a world-class historical drama.

Despite these issues, I feel comfortable saying that you should mark your calendars.  We'll be seeing a good chunk of this cast and crew again in February at the Oscars.  I wouldn't be shocked if Forest Whitaker and David Oyelowo get nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor down the road.  I wouldn't be surprised if there are a few other nominations as well.  This is some really powerful work from everyone involved.  Lee Daniels' The Butler gets a strong 0.03% rating.  Have some wine coolers with this one.