“The Butler” (Drama: 2 hours, 12 minutes)
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and John Cusack
Director: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, and Jane Fonda
Rated: R (Violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, sexual innuendo and profanity)
Movie Review: An adaptation of “The Butler: A Witness to History” by Wil Haygood, this film is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, a White House butler whose tenure spanned several presidents from Truman to Reagan. “The Butler” is a powerful cinematic story, but Danny Strong’s fictionalized screenplay has too much fluff.
Set against historical events covering the 1920s to the 1980s, Cecil Gaines, played by Oscar-recipient Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland,” 2006), grows up on a plantation in Georgia. He quickly leaves the plantation after coming of age. After several jobs, he lands the chance of a lifetime, a position as a butler in the White House.
Cecil works in the White House for decades. While near some of the most powerful men on the planet, he is also witness to some of this country’s darkest moments during the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, political events and other moments such as Kennedy’s assassination. Cecil must also balance family and work. His wife, Gloria (Winfrey), is lonely, and his oldest son, Louis (Oyelowo), is on the dangerous frontlines of the Civil Rights battles. Through it all, Cecil Gaines remains a resolute butler.
The best stories are not those created in movies. It is those stories created by real-life people in everyday life situations. Writer Danny Strong takes an already powerful story and makes it overly fictionalized moments. This story did not need such treatment. It is already compelling enough.
A prime example is the addition of Louis, Cecil’s oldest son. Louis poetically provides a portrayal of new African-American activism compared to Cecil’s forfeiture of dignity to make a good living mentality. This contrast between the two is intriguing. A certain intellectual study exists with these men. One finds complacency in a society that mistreats him, and the other finds he must make changes happen rather than waiting for them happen.
Cecil’s story is stronger, but Strong’s screenplay allows the film to follow Cecil’s son, Louis, in an extreme manner. Louis appears to be a part of every major Civil Right movement, including traveling with Dr. Martin Luther King. Louis’ life becomes overkill, as he plays a part and meets major figures of the Civil Rights movement. Louis appears omnipresent. This is where this plot’s fictionalization tries to make Louis too relevant when the film is really about his father.
The extra dramatics go overboard when it is unneeded here. “The Butler” is already an interesting enough tale without such additives.
A man’s ability to find a purpose after being born and raised like a slave on a plantation in a 1920s Macon, Ga., is phenomenal and a moving part of this story. Cecil Gaines feels real. More important, Gaines interactions with presidents and others through multiple presidential administrations are engaging. Also impressive, the changing American social structure from the 1950s to the 1980s is a worthwhile overview of American history.
Whitaker has an everyman appeal. He works well as Cecil Gaines, a man trying to earn a decent living for his family. Oprah is good as his wife, although picturing her as anything than a worldly billionaire is difficult. Oyelowo easily provides a valuable performance. They and others comprise an intriguing cast. Perhaps, the film’s weakest aspect is it tries to make all of the characters too important.
The good moments are plentiful despite some minor irritations. The artistic manner in which Cecil and his son, Louis, work within the confines of institutionalized racism is a pivotal part of this drama. In addition, the film is a nice story of historical events from plantations to the nation’s first minority president. The union of these concepts makes this a compelling drama.
“The Butler” gains one’s attention with its opening scenes. It maintains that momentum until its touching conclusion. Its powerful end is a welcomed treat that is emotionally riveting.
Lee Daniels, the director of the exceptional “Precious” (2009), provides a photoplay with plenty of realism. He does not shy away from controversy or energetically intense scenes. As with “Precious,” Daniels’ attempt is to present a life — the good and the bad — with some humor, history and a large well-known cast.
Grade: B (The tenure of this butler provides plenty.)