The Butler

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker

Though Lee Daniels’ The Butler features actors playing five presidents, they are ultimately bits of amusing stunt casting. And that’s the way it should be, writes FMR’s Jordan Baker.

Though the roster of A-list cameos adds star power to the project, Daniels’ follow-up to the trashtastic The Paperboy, it never gets lost in them. Instead, they’re used to push and pull the quiet Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), as he plays the role of observer to some of the most tumultuous years in modern American history. So many films (often biopics) try to capture decades of history and feel like hasty powerpoint presentations. The Butler, despite its share of faults, manages to flesh out its historical stepping stones effortlessly, all without feeling self-important.

As Cecil and his hard-drinking wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) avoid involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, their son Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes an active participant. The range of opinions – Louis’ fiery activism, Cecil’s neutrality, white authority’s slow progress and/or hostility – is what keeps the story so consistently engaging. Even with the copious amounts of vaseline smeared on the camera lenses, The Butler is neither cheap nor trashy. And, compared to Daniels’ previous films, it feels much more restrained. There are histrionics, to be sure, but they never feel contrived or manipulative. The emotions and issues that make up the film’s story are big, and the acting is always in perfect sync.

In the film’s trickiest role, Whitaker is a quiet marvel. It’s a complete 180 from his Oscar-winning turn in The Last King of Scotland, and has him as a reserved, passive figure. Yet for all of the serving and observing Cecil does, Whitaker never slips into blankness. The character’s conflict, solidly sketched out, ensures that he never becomes boring or an empty audience surrogate. The issue of what it means to be black and a servant as the Civil Rights Movement rages outside is an emotionally complex internal struggle, and Whitaker captures it quite gracefully.

Lending strong support are Winfrey and Oyelowo, both of whom provide different sorts of foils. Winfrey’s Gloria, who gradually moves towards sobriety across the narrative, is the livelier of the couple, always trying to draw her husband out of his shell, while also holding the house together. Though we may not spend nearly as much time with Gloria as we do with Cecil, she still feels like her own independent character. It’s role that demands both energy and empathy, and Winfrey proves herself more than up to the task. Though her name is undoubtedly a draw (reports are that the role was expanded after her casting), her performance never throws one out of the film. Whatever decisions may have led to her being cast in the role, she is authentic, and there’s not an ounce of celebrity vanity to be found in the performance.

Oyelowo, meanwhile, makes a strong impression as Louis, who proves to be quite the lightning rod as time goes by. One of the most compelling aspects of Danny Strong‘s script is seeing how drastically Louis changes, while Cecil does his best to stay the same in his little bubble at the White House. Unlike the film’s hall of presidents, Cecil and his family are rounded characters who help ground the film in the complexities of black American life.

That said, the presidents and their wives are handled nicely, even as the casting creates a few chuckles at first glance (Robin Williams as Eisenhower set off more than a few people). James Marsden makes an appealing JFK, and Liev Schreiber provides some humor as Lyndon Johnson. That humor is, thankfully, not contained strictly to LBJ’s scenes. For as much sadness and anger as there is, The Butler can be very funny, which only makes it more emotionally accessible. Even John Cusack, so totally miscast as Richard Nixon, is convincing with the broad strokes he’s required to play. Of the presidents, however, it’s probably Alan Rickman‘s Ronald Reagan who comes off as the most complex. After helping Cecil ensure equal pay for black White House staff, he then struggles with aiding South African anti-apartheid movements, which only puts Cecil in a more emotionally conflicted corner.

Scenes and characters from outside of the White House or the Gaines’ home prove equally compelling, and provide the film with some of its high points. Louis’ early brushes with activism – participating in a sit-in and becoming a Freedom Rider – are absolutely gut-wrenching. They let the conviction of the protesters, as well as the hatred of their opposition, take center stage. It’s intense stuff, and Daniels plays it completely straight. While some scenes border on cheesy (so much vaseline), the depictions of the Civil Rights Movement are frighteningly real, which only magnifies their power.

With so many narrative balls to juggle, it’s impressive that Daniels and Strong never let any of them drop. For a film that covers so much time, what they have pulled off is something to be proud of. The script and direction keep Cecil and his family front and center. With the ensemble coming and going, Daniels and Strong never lose track of the Gaineses as the narrative’s anchor. Even with its sappy score and on-the-nose voiceover, The Butler is a surprisingly effective portrait of family up against a canvas that spans decades. It may contain only a few brushes with true greatness, but The Butler deserves to be commended for taking on so much without ever feeling overburdened.

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3.5 / 5 stars     

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