Often brilliant but sometimes unnecessarily protracted. The Butler will however always be memorable for its 80-years of black experience in America, pre-Civil Rights, during Civil Rights activism, and post-Civil Rights. Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”) is the African-American butler who humbly serves the White House under eight presidents, David Oyelowo (“Middle of Nowhere”) is the activist son who is a part of the Freedom Fighters, a follower of Martin Luther King Jr., and a member of the Black Panthers. The director is Lee Daniels of “Precious,” who comes up with stirringly evocative images of re-created images, but also inert scenes of too much babble. Oh well, but forgiven.
The lead performance by Whitaker, as Cecil Gaines, will be remembered for a very long time. He witnesses the murder of his father by a white plantation master in the opening scenes. As a destitute young adult, he moves to the big city, and finds his first butler role in a posh hotel. The advice he lives by is “The room should feel empty when you’re in it.” He catches the attention of a White House aide and is hired in 1957.
Gaines, eavesdropping on the presidents’ American policies as he often enters the Oval Office, has to remove emotion while he serves. In his own quiet way, he salutes the presidents he serves (he feels the most admiration for John F. Kennedy, he is at his most docile serving under the spurious Lyndon Johnson), but it takes more than 30 years to admire his son’s black empowerment crusade and to stand up to his own quiet rebellion.
There are a few short scenes of greatness that take place in the early 1960’s with Louis (Oyelowo), when angry whites bully and humiliate blacks in protest. It’s the speechifying scenes at headquarters that go on to long. Oyelowo is always a fierce and unflinching actor nonetheless. His Louis isn’t simply an idealist, he’s a man of action. The definite weaker aspects of Daniels’ film is when it cuts to the Gaines household, held together by the long-suffering and neglected Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), who occupies static scenes that go on too long. The next door neighbor (Terrence Howard) puts the moves on Mrs. Gaines, which is superfluous drama.
The performances of the presidents are played by name actors. Robin Williams as President Eisenhower; James Marsden as President Kennedy; John Cusack as President Richard Nixon; Liev Schreiber as President Johnson; clips to represent President Jimmy Carter; and Alan Rickman as President Ronald Reagan. The most eyebrow raising performance is Cusack who looks nothing like Nixon (he is helped by a nose prosthetic). The most impressive of these performances is Rickman who plays the benign but hypocritical Reagan. He is the first president to give Gaines a night off to attend a fancy White House gala with his wife, which is a kind gesture but Rickman still gives Reagan a fake magnanimous persona.
The white racism of blacks is more severe than what was portrayed in “The Help.” What “The Butler” achieves is the harshest dramatization of oppression of blacks in America since the underrated “The Long Walk.” Daniels proved with “Precious” that he is a great filmmaker. His direction of the overwrought “Shadowboxer” and “The Paperboy” almost underscored him as a nutjob, albeit a talented one. With “The Butler,” he shows that he is capable of making a rousing historical film about Dr. King, Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson, Maya Angelou, or Oprah Winfrey herself.
Demonstrating range within a single character is Whitaker which is a just attraction. Even as a White House employee, he is paid less than white employees because he is black, and in time makes a timid stand for equal rights. This meek approach contrasts with his son whose modus operandi is make a stand NOW! NOW! NOW! Yes, it’s terrible. Cecil Gaines struggles a lifetime to achieve upward mobility. It’s one of many important messages of our 20th century history. This film can’t be ignored.
Also with Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding Jr., Clarence Williams III, Jane Fonda, Mariah Carey, Vanessa Redgrave.
127 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
HISTORICAL DRAMA / CEREBRAL / WEEKEND FOOD FOR THOUGHT