History Comes to Life
By Carl Kozlowski
Lee Daniels’ The Butler tells the fascinating true story of the longest-serving butler in White House history
You never know who could be the fly on the wall watching history in the making. That fact is brought to vivid life in the terrific new film biography Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Starring Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, the longest-serving butler in White House history—serving Presidents Eisenhower through Reagan—the film offers an intriguing vantage point on some of the most profound changes in American society.
The movie feels like an African-American spin on the Oscar-winning classic Forrest Gump in its depiction of Cecil being present for countless moments from pivotal era of American history, but the truly amazing thing is that most of this story is true. And just as Gump was packed with Oscar-worthy performances, the cast of The Butler is stacked with Hollywood royalty and is sure to have its star duo of Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey prepping victory speeches for awards season next year.
Elegantly helmed by director Daniels, whose last film was the Oscar-winning Precious in 2009, The Butler deals with some of the darkest moments in American race relations. However, it handles those interludes with enough subtlety to earn a PG-13 rating while still packing the emotional punch of his previously R-rated film.
The movie follows Cecil from when he was a young boy in 1926, working on a plantation’s cotton fields. After a plantation owner shoots his father point-blank in the head in front of the boy, Cecil is taken in by the plantation’s matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave), who trains him to be a “house” worker. While this is also de facto slave-level work, it teaches Cecil the valuable skills he needs to become a high-class waiter and, eventually, a butler in the White House for presidents, beginning with Dwight Eisenhower.
While Cecil spends decades serving white power figures in the Executive Mansion, he finds trouble brewing at his home when his long hours drive his wife (Winfrey) into alcoholism and a secret affair, and the oldest of his two sons grows resentful of the compromises that his father makes daily.
This son becomes radicalized in college and winds up arrested dozens of times during the civil rights struggle, forming a rift between the son who wants to change the white-dominated power structure once and for all and a father who is scared that speaking up against that power structure will ruin everything he’s worked so hard for.
Daniels provides some brilliant parallels throughout the movie which contrast the struggles that both Cecil and his son are going through. The best matches the butler corps (which includes strong performances by Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr.) preparing for a state dinner as if they’re soldiers girding for war, while Cecil’s son and his fellow civil rights protesters prep for war against racists, the police and the National Guard.
Throughout, the visuals captured by cinematographer Andrew Dunn are sumptuous and the score blends classic pop hits of the various eras with an evocative original score by Rodrigo Leao that perfectly fits the film’s many emotional shadings.
Working from a sterling script by Danny Strong, Daniels creates a fascinating and touching portrayal of figures large and small at a decisive era in American history. Despite casting liberal icons like John Cusack as Richard Nixon and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, the movie provides sympathetic portrayals of both Republican and Democratic presidents, showing the human side of the men who are forced to make the final calls on the most difficult issues facing society.
Above them all stand Whitaker and Winfrey, creating a dream team that could easily nab the Oscars for their roles. For Lee Daniels’ The Butler is history brought to life in an evocative, emotionally compelling way. It’s also a story from which every American should learn.