Pitch-perfect cast serves ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ very well
So much story to tell, so little time to do it. That’s the modest conundrum—and bittersweet irony—of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Even with its 132-minute run time, you still may find yourself craving something more—more character development, more understanding of the mindset of some of its key players and more of a sense of real catharsis from its protagonist. Still, there’s only so much you can fit into a film that, for the most part, focuses on 50 years of history as seen through the eyes of a White House butler with remarkable longevity.
My, how much better this film could have been had it been given even more room to breathe creatively as a HBO mini-series. But let’s focus on the good, of which there is still plenty.
Inspired by Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article (“A Butler Well Served by his Election”), which detailed the fascinating life of former White House butler Eugene Allen, Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland, TV’s Criminal Minds) takes center stage here as Cecil Gaines, a man who serves during seven presidential administrations between 1957 and 1986.
We meet Cecil before his White House career, of course. Screenwriter Danny Strong (HBO’s Game Change) and director Lee Daniels (Precious) quickly chronicle young Cecil’s dramatic childhood on a cotton farm in the segregated south in 1926—look for Mariah Carey in a moving cameo—before taking us to his prominent stint serving in a Washington D.C. hotel, and then to his days of serving the presidency at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Whitaker breathes a believable grace into Cecil and it’s hard not to like him. The script paints Cecil out to be a man with a strong work ethic as he eventually directly serves Presidents Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Nixon (John Cusack)—and all the way to Reagan (Alan Rickman in a haunting, memorable turn). But Cecil has his blind spots. His over-commitment to his job leaves a significant imprint on his family life and were it not for the pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps verve of his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), you get the sense that Cecil could have been left alone working for honor with little emotional or familial payback.
Winfrey stands out as Gloria, bringing to the screen some of the finest, emotionally rich and most believable moments offered by a supporting actress this year. (Oscar buzz is afoot.) She also provides one of the film’s more memorable lines when, in a heated moment, she tells Cecil: “You and that White House can kiss my ass.” As Gloria’s disappointment over Cecil’s work dedication takes its toll on their home life and two sons finds her turning to liquor and flirtations with a neighbor, you have the sense there may be no turning back for her. But Winfrey manages to save Gloria from becoming more than another caricature and through the years, we’re offered a remarkably refreshing portrait of a real human who’s struggled to overcome some serious demons.
Unfortunately, Cecil isn’t given that same kind of treatment in the script—the audience is left to fill in some of the gaps of his real motivations—but, overall, the tale doesn’t sink because of it. And while the filmmakers’ decision to cover the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s is particularly potent, there’s a sense that they may have taken up camp far too long in that era. True, it affords us an opportunity to see how Cecil responds to his eldest son’s (David Oyelowo) involvement in the political protests of the day, but we never really know the real reasons why he’s opposed to his son’s aspirations. Not really. It’s a minor misstep from the screenwriter that could have been saved with, at the very least, a few more minutes of dialogue or reflection.
What the film does best is color its historic canvas in lush, broad strokes and keep its eye candy moving. Few films of late boast such a dynamic posse of actors that manage to play so well off of each other. That’s a coup in and of itself, especially in a day an age when things like Reds 2 make you question why some of filmdom’s more reputable stars are selling out. But feast your eyes on the nuances Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz bring to their roles as fellow butlers alongside Whitaker here. Savor Terrence Howard as he disappears into the role of Cecil and Gloria’s smarmy neighbor. Watch how powerfully effective Jane Fonda is—with just a few lines of dialogue—as Nancy Reagan.
There’s a quickly moving conveyor belt of creatives on screen but you don’t often get to experience them that long. Still, the filmmakers capture something unique (enough) on screen to keep you invested in the people you’re watching and the events they are effected by. Like Precious, Daniels’ strong suit thus far appears to be locating a film’s beating heart (its main character typically, although here he plays off the civil rights theme) and allowing it to resonate into the ethers until it has you in its inescapable grip. You may want more time with The Butler—not a bad thing—when all is said and done, but fortunately, you walk away feeling moved and inspired.
And you can’t say that about that many movies these days. Lee Daniels’ The Butler ★ ★ ★ (out of four)
With Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Alan Rickman,Robin Williams and Jane Fonda. Written by Danny Strong. Directed by Lee Daniels. 132 minutes. Rated PG-13