“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is an impressive and effective film, inspired by a true story. As a young boy in the 1920’s Cecil Gaines grew up on a cotton plantation, the son of a slave, who is shot to death by his owner. Cecil is then taken in by the elder, female owner (Vanessa Redgrave), who teaches him how to be a house servant. Cecil quickly learns the “two faces” it takes for an African-American to survive in the white-man’s world. As he gets older he gets a few other servant jobs and then, one day, receives the phone call that changes his life.
Cecil (played by Forest Whitaker) is asked to become one of the White House butlers. And he accepts. Over the next three-plus decades covering eight Presidencies, Cecil witnesses, from the inside, the events that take place that shape our country. Daniels focuses on the racial struggles in the U.S. during the 60’s and 70’s and later, those in other parts of the world. We get Cecil’s perspective throughout this critical time in American history and witness the changes in this man and in the country. By using this method to tell the story Daniels makes Cecil a character that we are immediately attached to.
“The Butler” features a large and impressive ensemble cast. Whitaker is excellent in a role in which he not only ages physically but quietly displays a wide range of emotions. Oprah Winfrey is also very good as Cecil’s wife Gloria, who has issues of her own.
Other stand-outs include Cuba Gooding, Jr. as a fellow White House butler, James Marsden as President Kennedy, John Cusack as President Nixon (five U.S. Presidents are depicted in the film and the others are referenced through authentic news footage) and David Oyelowo as Cecil’s oldest son, Louis. His story is told in parallel to Cecil’s as he becomes an active member of the civil rights movement, first as a Freedom Rider and then a Black Panther, against the wishes of his parents.
Daniels captures the setting and tone of these dramatic times in race relations in America quite well. He incorporates his own version of certain historical events with actual photographs and media accounts. Outside of a few scenes, nothing is ever really forced. It’s difficult not to be moved by this look at the life of a proud man who served
his country with honor during challenging times.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is rated PG-13 for some violence, language, and smoking. It works as both a historical drama and an inspirational profile.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” gets an A-.