Lee Daniels’ The Butler Review
by Laurie Coker
It is easy to love a film, in spite of a sometimes heavy-handed director, if for nothing more than an exceptional cast. Scripted by Danny Strong, Lee Daniels’ civil rights era film meanders perhaps a bit too much in places, but because of the talents of Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, it still manages to please the majority of the time. Enhancing the moving performances of his exceptional cast, Daniels captures the very essence of a time of trials and turmoil, offering a historical journey that spans decades.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, a man who worked as a butler in the White House for eight different presidents, among them John F. Kennedy (James Marsden, every bit as affable as the likable leader), Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber, who captures the profane and over-the-top character of LBJ), Richard Nixon (John Cusack, the least effective), and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman, who surprised me with this excellent performance).Throughout their terms, these and other presidents will face the ugly head of racism and each will confide secrets, some demeaning and others heartening, with Cecil (Whitaker), a man who watched his father die at the hands of a white man and who worked his way up from house boy to White House concierge by being utterly unnoticeable in a room.
Cecil moves from regime to regime, serving each president and his family with humble pride, while his headstrong son (an impressive David Oyelowo) fights openly against racism and his wife, Gloria (Winfrey), nurses a bottle and longs for her husband to be home. Whitaker and Winfrey have wonderful and palpable chemistry and scenes with them truly capture the struggles of a marriage lived where two worlds notably collide. Their story is perhaps more interesting than that of Cecil’s alone.
The supporting cast includes Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. as fellow butlers, Terrence Howard as a scheming neighbor, Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the incomparable Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. And as I previously mentioned, Daniels delivers us into the time and the tumult of civil rights and blatant racism. We get inside peeks into the White House and into the homes and private lives of blacks throughout the 20th century – places not unlike every other home, but tainted by the hatred and ignorance of discrimination. Daniels’ sets, scenes, costuming, and realism are all impeccable, and if I do find fault, it is more with Strong’s storytelling and with awkward editing than with Daniels alone, and I don’t actually fault it much. He takes us across decades and makes us think, reflect, and, dare I say, cry.
Daniel’s cast keeps his film grounded, and we forgive the neatness of some resolutions and the less-than-perfect editing; at least I do. I loved seeing Cecil with each first family and I felt pleasure when I saw him meet Obama in 2008, after years of dedicated service. I sat mesmerized by Whitaker and Winfrey, and in watching each seasoned actor portray presidents. I am placing a B+ in my grade book, although the leads deserve far higher.