Print Edition: September 18, 2013
The Butler follows the life of a house servant who worked in the White House through eight presidents and over 34 years. The film is inspired by the real-life story of Eugene Allen, though many dramatic liberties are taken with his personal life. As it summarizes the civil rights movement in the late 20th century, there is a didactic feel throughout the movie, but it is also celebratory in nature and maintains a good entertainment level for its audience.
The movie opens with a young Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) working in a cotton field with his parents. After seeing his mother raped and his father shot by one of the plantation owners, the caretaker takes Cecil into the house as a servant.
After some years, Cecil decides to leave the plantation and finds himself serving in an upscale hotel after a period of wandering. He is eventually hired at the White House to serve the president. At this point in the film, Cecil’s wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) feels distanced from him and becomes an alcoholic.
His older son Louis (Daniel Oyelowo) becomes a civil rights activist, working his way into many major events in the civil rights movement. This creates a divide between the father and son, as Cecil feels that being a hard worker would make life better, and Louis believes he needs to fight for his rights. This leads to Cecil thinking his son is a trouble-making criminal and Louis believing his father is a conformist.
Cecil is an interesting character, often instructed to ‘disappear’ into the room. This poses a challenge for Whitaker to portray thoughts and feelings without speaking or acting out (a challenge he rises to gracefully). Winfrey meets a similar challenge, except she needs to disappear into the role so as not to distract from the film with her reputation. This is all compounded by Lee Daniels’ ‘less is more’ philosophy and the end result is a story told with more emotion than dialogue.
Much of the movie’s appeal stems from strong imagery and the emotional impact of the violence following the civil rights movement, giving the audience a taste of what protestors experienced. Cecil’s home life also contributed to the drama, as his distance from his son exemplifies the generational divide. These intense scenes are offset by fun parties with Cecil and his friends as well as tender moments with his family. The two extremes were balanced well and add to the entertainment value of the film.
Apparently all the White House scenes actually happened, but unfortunately these are lower points in the movie. Many of the presidential scenes suffer from poor acting, with roles whose purpose seemed to be to fit in some major names. President Nixon (John Cusack) is particularly poor – not many people would have realized who he played without it being explicitly mentioned.
However, Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) was good, and most of these scenes do have a fun element to them (the only thing stranger than seeing Robin Williams as a wizened Eisenhower was probably seeing him as the bad guy in Insomnia). This weaker point of the movie is passable at worst, not detracting from the main content and message while at least barely doing its job showing the changes the White House went through.
Due to the nature of the film, scenes often take place years apart. Usually this would lead to confusion for viewers, however the team behind The Butler prevents this problem with some effective solutions. Scenes are given effects to make them look like they were actually shot on proper vintage cameras, for example, with significant blooming and warmer tones in earlier scenes (a lot like an ‘old-fashioned’ Instagram filter) without going overboard and drawing attention away from the movie itself.
Aging effects are also particularly effective not only in make-up but also in the subtle ways characters speak, giving viewers more visual and audible clues that time has passed.
All in all, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a worthy movie. Gut-wrenching emotional scenes are offset by tender and fun family moments. Though at times didactic, The Butler benefits from an excellent cast and always remains gripping, offering viewers a valuable perspective of American civil rights history and celebrating how far the country has come.