Like any film that attempts to tell the story of someone’s life, the end result can’t help but feel as though there’s something missing. Lee Daniels’ The Butler – that’s the complete official film title – is essentially a true story based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American butler in the White House who was witness to many significant events during the thirty-four years in which he served.
The film takes that setup as its base and builds a fictional account of what the butler saw in the nation’s capital from 1952 to 1986. Here the butler is called Cecil Gaines played with a quiet though forceful dignity by Forest Whitaker, an approach that works perfectly well for the character and the work he does.
“The only thing I ever knew was cotton,” we learn in a voice-over at the beginning as we see Cecil as a young boy. “It was hard work.” It’s 1926 and Cecil is picking cotton with his family on a plantation in Macon, Georgia. What follows is an account of how Cecil observed from a distance the rape of his mother (Mariah Carey) by a young white man (Alex Pettyfer) who then shoots his father when the father dares to say nothing more than, “Hey,” in protest. It’s a disturbing scene but it sets the tone of the continual danger Cecil will feel throughout his life no matter where he goes.
As time passes, Cecil becomes the house-boy. “I don’t even want to hear you breathe,” Cecil is instructed by an elderly Vanessa Redgrave who plucks the child from the fields into her stately home. “The room should be empty when you’re in it,” she tells the child as he attempts to learn the ways of being a servant.
What follows is a series of truncated events that tell the story of how Cecil left the South, headed north, married, and eventually became a White House butler serving through eight presidential terms. “We have no tolerance for politics at the White House,” Cecil is told during his initial interview. “You hear nothing, you say nothing. You only serve.”
Despite what might appear as some very odd casting for certain famous historical figures, it all works surprisingly well. Robin Williams is seen briefly as Eisenhower. “It’s the first time I saw a white man stick his neck out for us,” Cecil observes as Eisenhower sends troops down to Little Rock, Arkansas. Liev Schrieber is L.B. Johnson who in one moment of exceptional crassness barks orders with his pants around his ankles while seated on the commode. John Cusack is particularly effective as Nixon when dealing with the Black Panthers. His true feelings on the matter surface when he states, “I’d round them all up and throw them down the elevator shaft.” And when Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan firmly states that he will veto any bill that imposes sanctions against South Africa’s disgraceful apartheid government, you get the feeling that despite the passing of the years, perhaps nothing has really changed.
But perhaps the most eye-raising of all unexpected casting is Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Given what we know of her real-life political history, the sight of Fonda portraying, for some, the once beloved conservative First Lady is a moment of genuine, sublime entertainment, and Fonda does it so well that for the briefest of moments you actually see Nancy Reagan before you and not Fonda in wig and makeup.
There’s also great support from Cuba Gooding Jr,. Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard and, of course, Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines, Cecil’s wife who occasionally finds she has a little too much time on her hands when Cecil is away from the home at work.
There’s a lot to both like and admire about Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Performances are universally good and there are many memorable moments that may stay with you long after the credits have rolled, but there’s also the feeling that what we’re watching has been given the Reader’s Digest approach to something that should have been given considerably more depth. At a time when the majority of recent releases have seemed overly long and bloated, here we have a fascinating subject that would have worked even better had the makers added an extra twenty minutes or so to the running length.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 126 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)