Lee Daniels’ The Butler has moments of genuine power and insight dealing with our nation’s civil rights history over the past near century. Spanning over 80 years in time, The Butler takes us from the picture’s central character working in the cotton fields of Georgia as a young boy to sitting in the White House as an old man waiting to meet with the first African-American President of the United States. In between those times, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) becomes quite familiar with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, working as a butler from the Eisenhower administration through the Reagan administration.
The film is loosely based on true events and The Butler shifts its time between Cecil’s work experience and family life. For the work portion, we get a journey through several decades of political history from desegregation to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to Vietnam to the South African apartheid movement. In many cases, these events coincide with Cecil’s family as his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) gets very politically involved in civil rights issues. The irony is not lost on the audience – his father works in the center of the U.S. government but has an occupation where being seen and not heard is the rule. Oprah Winfrey is Cecil’s wife Gloria, a well-rounded character full of imperfections but also an enduring devotion to her husband.
The Butler is really centralized on the complicated relationship between Cecil and David. It is their dynamic that provide the picture’s best moments, as well as several between Cecil and Gloria. When screenwriter Danny Strong focuses his concentration on their storylines, the film is effective and often emotionally satisfying.
It’s the scenes in the White House that often fall far short of satisfying. For starters, director Daniels’ decision to cast recognizable actors as the Presidents backfires. Much of this is due to casting. We have Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Live Schrieber as LBJ, John Cusack as Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Reagan. None of them make much of an impression and most aren’t given enough screen time to make one anyway. Their casting serves as a distraction more than anything else and we feel like we’re watching the actor, not the POTUS character they’re playing. The same cannot be said for Winfrey, who is outstanding. She reminds us that she probably would’ve had a great movie career over the last couple of decades if not for that whole building a billion dollar multimedia empire thing.
Even with casting quibbles set aside, where The Butler sometimes fails is in its journey through history that could often be described as “cliffs notes”. There simply isn’t the proper time to give these important political issues any real fleshing out. Some of these scenes showing the struggle of the civil rights movement, especially those involving Louis, are powerful. And we do get involved with the characters of Gaines family and we can thank some excellent acting from Whitaker, Winfrey, and Oyelowo a lot for that.
The Butler‘s finest moments are mixed with a lot of disappointing ones, including some unfortunate casting choices and its uneven and too episodic screenplay. It’s the writing of the Gaines family in several scenes and the first-rate performances of the actors playing them that helps out a lot.
*** (out of four)