Director, Lee Daniels (Precious), proves once again that he can tackle a violent, emotional, civil rights issue as he tells the story of the African-American’s struggle for equal rights through the unique perspective of a White House butler. Lee Daniels’ The Butler features an entertaining, star-filled cast, a series of engaging historical points, countless amusing moments and much more. This film is an inspiring story about an eager-to-work, selfless man who spends his entire life following the rules and staying silent in the background, while always wanting more for those around him.
Based on true events, Lee Daniels’ The Butler tells the eyewitness account of an African-American, White House butler who served eight presidents over three decades in the 19th and 20th century during a crucial time in U.S. history. The main theme of this film is the struggle for equal rights for blacks during this volatile time, depicted through numerous well-known historical events showing the violence, sit-ins, protests, the Black Panther Party, Freedom Riders, the Ku Klux Klan, Martin Luther King Jr., and more. Strong and rich in Black History, this film paints a vivid picture of what African-Americans went through, the struggles and conditions they faced, and the ultimate payoff they receive as they are finally granted equal rights and see the first black President of the United States in office.
Most notable in this film is the quality performance by Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, the aforementioned butler. Whitaker creates a character with a mix of Forest Gump and Bill Cosby, as an uneducated, strong-willed family man whose only purpose in life is being the best at his job and providing a better life for his family. We follow Gaines from a young boy on a cotton farm (younger Gaines played by other actors) to an old man witnessing the inauguration of President Obama after a long and tiresome journey. Without intention, the butler quietly impacts the civil rights movement through his dedication to his profession, which earns him the respect of those in power and gives Gaines the confidence to later be bold in standing up for black equal rights. His story parallels the story of his son, who not quietly, but passionately fights for black civil rights with other black heroes, often breaking the law and risking their own lives for a cause they believe. Their paths for a better life for blacks are very different, and their relationship is complicated. This translates into a propelling story line, rich in content for The Butler, and a story that reminds each of us of a very sad and cruel time in our nation’s history.
The rest of this well-known cast is not far behind in entertaining performances, featuring actors like Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Liev Shreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson and more. The only negative aspect about this cast is that at times seeing these actors in these roles borders more on feelings of amusement than this is the right man for the job, but to say those roles don’t work would be an overstatement. Aside from the cast of past presidents, The Butler is rounded out with performances from Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Minka Kelly, and Jane Fonda.
Surprisingly funny, The Butler features numerous common black stereotypes, which are well portrayed without offense. This humor helps the audience move past the very real and scary moments of violence of the black community during this time. These often graphic scenes are brief, but Daniels is effective in making sure that those images remain in your mind visually even through the humor. The Butler moves rather quickly as Daniels fits several stories and time periods into a lengthy feature film. The transitions between periods are executed well as the audience sees clips of real historical footage to set the tone. Lee Daniels’ The Butler tells an amazing story and doesn’t miss a factual beat, and I’ll be shocked if this film and/or Forest Whitaker does not receive multiple award nominations.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking. Running time is 2 hours and 12 minutes. Rated 4.2 out of 5.
By: Hayden Pittman
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