Lee Daniel’s The Butler (2013)
PG-13 / 132 min
Biography / Drama
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo
Director: Lee Daniels
We’re smack dab in the middle of another election season which means one thing, more change is coming to the White House. No matter how this election turns out, a new president is going to be elected and people will be moving in and out of the White House. It’s a change that’s relatively constant every four (or eight) years. I’m willing to bet that the White House is probably the one house in America that has had the most tenants over the course of history. I’m probably wrong but I’m 80% confident that this is the truth.
Change doesn’t affect everything in the White House though. It’s the behind the scenes crew, the group of individuals that keep America’s oldest and safest house running at tip-top shape, that are the one constant amidst the change. Perhaps the most notable staff member that the White House has ever had on its team was Eugene Allen, a butler who served under a multitude of presidents over a 34-year span until he retired as head butler in 1986. He is also the source and inspiration behind Lee Daniel’s The Butler, a historical drama that takes a look at the wildly intriguing life of Cecil Gaines, butler at the White House.
Yes, that’s right, the name of the butler in the movie, played by Forest Whitaker, is named Cecil Gaines. I’m not sure why they decided to go with that name over Eugene’s actual name, but there’s probably some legitimate reason that makes sense. I’m sure Eugene or his family probably had something to do with it. Forest Whitaker was pretty much perfect for this role. He was stoic and constricted in his mannerisms as he slid right into the body of Cecil. The man goes through a lot over the tenure of his work and watching the way he acted and reacted to things was one of the best parts of the movie. There’s few actors I could have seen doing better in this role than Whitaker.
The rest of Cecil’s family are also just as delightful, although they don’t reach the same caliber as Whitaker’s performance. Oprah Winfrey plays Cecil’s loud-mouthed wife Gloria. Cecil also has two sons, Louis and Charlie, played by David Oyelowo and Elijah Kelly respectively. Louis is the rebel in the family while Charlie is the good two-shoes of the bunch. One of the primary spotlights of the movie is centered on Louis as he becomes a big proponent for the black civil rights movement and joins the Black Panthers. We film switches back and forth between Cecil’s life in the White House and Louis’ life on the streets. One is working for the power while the other is working against it. They both ultimately want the same goal, social freedom, but watching the contrast between the two is really cool.
The reality of making a movie about the life of Cecil Gaines, as well as the civil rights movement, is perhaps a little tougher than it seems. You could create a multi-season TV show about the two, but when you try to cram 30+ years of history into one movie, things get a little crowded. The film’s pacing is light on its feet and it flies through the years, only stopping here and there for important plot moments. Lee Daniels had a lot of ground to cover in terms of material and it would have been nice if he honed it down to a more concentrated and smaller portion of history. The focus of the story moves a little too fast between different time periods making it hard to catch a breath.
Another way in which the movie faults is with its A-list cast. It’s funny that I say that. A-list cast? Why would that be a bad thing. Your right, having a top-notch cast is usually something you strive for with a movie but in The Butler’s case, the cast is actually a little distracting. Over the course of the movie we are introduced to the eight presidents, who range from lesser known actors to the more popular. The bottom line, they were all gimmicky in their own ways. Casting the late Robin Williams as president Eisenhower was one example of the questionable casting decisions. He looked the part but didn’t necessarily fit into the part personality wise. Instead of saying, “oh look, it’s president Eisenhower!” I said, “oh look, it’s Robin Williams…that’s weird.” There’s also appearances from the people like Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz that just felt out of place in the movie.
Despite its missteps, Lee Daniel’s The Butler is a well-made period piece. It tells not only a fascinating story, but an important one that needs to be told. It also finds ways to be relevant to this day. (It even has a couple of scenes dedicated to the Obama election) The movie might be a quick and fast crash course on the topic of the civil rights movement, but that only acts as a backdrop for the story at hand, which is the story of Cecil Gaines, a black White House butler during a time of unparalleled change in American history.