Lee Daniels’ The Butler tells the story of a man who witnessed decades of history from inside the White House. It’s a fictional story, inspired by “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” a feature story that appeared in The Washington Post the Friday after Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election.
In addition to writer Wil Haygood’s Washington Post story about the late White House butler Eugene Allen, the New Orleans-filmed The Butler incorporates and compresses the lives of multiple White House employees and their families.
Spanning 1926 to 2009, the movie begins with a rich concept but then tries to do too much with the myriad dramatic possibilities within that idea. Despite the overreaching, at least half of The Butler is a compelling account of an African-American child from the deep South who becomes a young man who has, ironically, a gift for serving.
Echoing Daniels’ uncompromising 2009 film, Precious, a drama about a brutally abused young woman in 1980s Harlem, the early life of The Butler’s protagonist, Cecil Gaines, is wrenchingly cruel. Living on a Georgia cotton plantation, Cecil loses both his father and, in many ways, his mother, when he’s still a child.
Immediately after his father’s death, the traumatized Cecil is taken into the plantation’s big house by its mistress. He’s to work as a house servant. The gruff actions of Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave), an elderly woman of the South who likely has memories of slavery and the Civil War, don’t outwardly appear to be an act of kindness. She may, however, have some underlying concern for the suddenly fatherless child.
Daniels and Danny Strong, a screenwriter whose previous projects include the political dramas Game Change and Recount, do a briskly effective job of showing how Cecil becomes an exemplary servant. Following Ms. Westfall’s introduction to the profession, Cecil finds a sympathetic yet exacting mentor in Clarence Williams III’s Maynard. A North Carolina hotel maître d’, Maynard takes the homeless Cecil under his experienced wing at a pivotal time in the young man’s life.
Cecil’s ascent from the cotton fields to the White House is dizzying, for the audience and the character himself. At the same time, these earlier sections of The Butler contain its most elegant and moving scenes.
Forest Whitaker plays the adult Cecil with dignified reticence. The character’s gift for restraint is a legacy from his years as a child servant in Georgia. There’s more irony when the regal African-American maître d’ at the White House (Colman Domingo) tells the new butler that he should conduct himself as if he exists only to serve. Nevertheless, Cecil is heard throughout the film via Whitaker’s softly spoken, sparely applied voiceovers.
The Butler crams an enormous amount of American history into its running time of just over two hours. Cecil serves the inevitably changing presidents and their families through seven administrations. Daniels and Strong give particular attention to civil rights era chief executives John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) and Lyndon B. Johnson (an amusing Liev Schreiber). The film depicts momentous events from both administrations in stirring scenes.
Johnson’s mid-to-late ’60s White House years also mark the point where Cecil’s story ambitiously collides with the Vietnam War, Dr. Martin Luther King and the rise of the radical Black Panthers. There’s too much to chew here.
Soap opera elements, including philandering by Cecil’s wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and extended conflict with his rebellious eldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), also undermine the storytelling’s momentum. And while The Butler doesn’t have the luxury of time available to a miniseries, some presidents get fleeting treatment.
Once The Butler slides off the rails it previously rode so confidently, scenes meant to have great impact lack the necessary drama and resonance to effectively do so. And the movie’s series of essentially cameo roles by a very recognizable supporting cast including John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Mariah Carey, Alan Rickman and Robin Williams largely feels underexploited.
Regardless of the well-intended miscalculations that derail the greater film The Butler might have been, its better half still contains many formidable moments.
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