Film Review: Lee Daniels' The Butler

Terrific family and historic drama inspired by the real-life African-American White House butler who served many U.S. Presidents captures critical decades in American history while giving star Forest Whitaker an Oscar-bait role.

Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election” was the wellspring for Lee Daniels’ The Butler, further evidence of Oscar-nominated Daniels’ immense talent previously on view with Precious and The Paperboy. Here, empowered by Danny Strong’s smart, encyclopedic screenplay, Daniels tackles both a bigger canvas and cast and manages the challenge with consummate skill.

With its savvy, liberal-leaning mash-up of mid to late 20th-century American politics (mainly the fight for racial equality) with down-home humor and warmth, the highly entertaining Butler could very well attract the same audiences surprise smash The Help seduced. Yes, the heft of Civil Rights and White House-ordered history might cost some viewers, but the bet here is that this Butler, while maneuvering a heavier tray, will serve up a big helping of box-office excitement.

The action begins in the mid-1920s deep in the viciously prejudiced, aggressively segregated South on a Georgia cotton plantation, where the Gaines family works the fields of plantation matriarch Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave). After her son Thomas (Alex Pettyfer) rapes young Cecil Gaines’ mother Hattie Pearl (Mariah Carey), then shoots Cecil’s outraged father in front of the boy, Annabeth rescues Cecil from the fields, bringing him into the house for service. The milieu and more refined duties pave the way for the young adult Cecil to land a local hotel job, before being tipped for similar duties as a server at an elite Washington, D.C. hotel.

In D.C., Cecil (Forest Whitaker) further hones his service skills and marries former hotel maid Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) with whom he raises two sons. A few years pass before he is tapped for a coveted 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue butler position, which begins a storied service during seven Presidential administrations from 1957 to 1986. As Cecil becomes a staple of the Oval Office, rebellious son Louis (David Oyelowo) grows increasingly active in the Civil Rights movement. More pro-establishment, younger son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) will end up in Vietnam.

Throughout, The Butler crosscuts between the evolution of Civil Rights activism in this country (with a focus on son Louis’ journey) and Cecil’s professional and private lives, including close-ups of intimate family friends like the rowdy Howard (Terrence Howard), who makes a play for Gloria, and Cecil’s White House colleagues like James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz) and Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.).

But starring on the butler’s work front is the succession of American Presidents Cecil serves, starting with Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams), seen as both painter and politician, and Presidential aspirant Richard Nixon (John Cusack), who bends Cecil’s ear before the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy election with the pitch that he, not rival JFK (James Marsden), is worthy of the black vote.

During the JFK administration, Cecil is a fly on the wall in the Oval Office as Kennedy becomes the first President to move effectively in the Civil Rights struggle. JFK’s successor Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber) displays a far more down-home style than his predecessor, even to the point of conversing with Cecil from his perch on the presidential toilet throne. Cecil also witnesses the triumphant Nixon move in and then topple with Watergate. Later on Cecil’s presidential route come Ronald and Nancy Reagan (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda, in a bit of inspired casting), the problem of apartheid and South Africa, a White House dinner where Cecil and Gloria are guests at the President’s table, and more.

But the struggle for Civil Rights is the passionate thread woven into the film’s fabric with Louis as the guide. Louis forms a bond with similarly inclined Carol (Yaya Alifia) and goes on sit-ins, protests and freedom rides until the pair end up years later as hardened Black Panther members, afros and all. But as Louis’ radicalism grows, so does the father-son alienation, which in turn has Gloria increasingly hitting the bottle.

As is de rigueur for any solid film, The Butler delivers an emotion-packed, satisfying ending. Performances are stunning and notably enhanced by remarkable makeup wizardry that ages key players. Whitaker, along with Daniels and screenwriter Strong (who somehow mastered a mountain of material), should lead an Oscar nomination assault.

As kind of American History for Gen-Y and Millennial dummies, The Butler would serve as a real eye-opener, if only younger filmgoers take a break from Hollywood’s summer noise.