Lee Daniels’ The Butler is an easy film to appreciate on face value with its wonderful performances, strong production values, and creative team. However, it isn’t till about the last 30 minutes of the film that you realize you’ve been witnessing a nuanced dissection of intergenerational relationships, race relations and double consciousness, and then the film really reveals itself to you. This is a tough line to walk, being both upfront with your message and managing subtle critiques, but luckily for viewers Daniels manages to find the right balance and deliver a winning movie.
The plot of The Butler is rather simple, with the situations and social commentary providing the narrative more heft. But for the purpose of familiarizing everyone with the tale, the story is based on the life of Eugene Allen, called Cecil Gaines in the film, a White House butler who served under 8 presidents from 1952 to 1986. In the film, we see Cecil Gaines go from being a young boy picking cotton and watching his father get murdered to working at a fancy Washington DC hotel to finally moving onto becoming part of the White House staff. Not only do we get a glimpse into this time at the White House, but also into how his role has affected his alcoholic wife (Oprah Winfrey), and his two sons Charlie and Louis (Elijah Kelly and David Oyelowo).
Danny Strong, well-known for his work on HBO tv biopics, teamed with Lee Daniels to pen the screenplay that manages to somehow balance the epic sweep of the narrative and the more subtle intimate social commentary. The film covers from 1926 to 2008, so admittedly some things just feel off or short-changed. The movie would have been just as powerful without Mariah Carey’s character and some of the scenes with Louis at college feel a bit jarring. But the pace of the film is so well done that you rarely feel any of the problems for more than a few moments. Much is made of the Presidents popping up in the story, and they find pretty natural ways of introducing them into the tale. The best is the first time Cecil meets Richard Nixon, in a scene that hints so much about the man Nixon would become and the complex relationship the staff had with their employers. Speaking of complex, where this film manages to do something I’ve rarely seen in a mainstream movie, that is delve into the idea of double consciousness, as well as the intergenerational struggles in the Black family. That a movie with an epic scope such as this can deftly handle these issues is great. The life of someone like Gaines could have easily been painted in a much easier lighter, but they allowed for the searing intensity of social issues to blend in.
All the credit for being able to pull that off should be given to Lee Daniels. Daniels is a very brash director but surprisingly he puts away his more extravagant urges away in favor of constant stewardship. This is a rather stylistically restrained film, from a filmmaking standpoint, but that’s not to say there’s not flourishes. About midway through there’s a beautiful juxtaposition of the White House staff waiting on a dinner and a sit in led by his Gaines’ son. He also nails the feeling of family, caring as much about crafting scenes set within the Gaines’ home as he does with those in the White House.
It’s perhaps this caring hand that allowed him to draw out such lived in performances from the actors. Given Daniels’ oeuvre, it might come as a shock that not a single performance in this film felt too showy. Forest Whitaker is about as solid a man as one can rely on to anchor a film like this and he gives a heartfelt performance as the man who has to have two faces, the butler and the family man. He’s not afraid to let the wear and tear of that show on his face and it was great watching him subtly change over the course of the film. His quiet is complimented by Oprah’s much more lively performance as his alcoholic wife Gloria. I was pleasantly surprised that she wasn’t as over the top as you might think, instead choosing to go for a pitch that mirrored the film. It’s a great baity role and you never quite get over it being Oprah, but she gives a performance that’s just what it needs to be. The real standout might be David Oyelowo, who deserves some citations for managing to negotiate a trick part (militant son of a conservative father) but never overplaying his hand. He’s really wonderful to watch, being all coiled intensity and resolute purpose, but showing us just enough of the sensitive underbelly of the character. Of the Presidents, I think Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson and John Cusack as Richard Nixon nail their characterizations the best. Cusack especially, really shines in his first appearance. It was also nice to see Cuba Gooding Jr. returning to the Land of Real Acting, delivering a fine performance as one of Cecil’s coworkers. Also turning in good supporting work was Elijah Kelley as Charlie Gaines and Yaya Alafia as Carol Hammie.
Ultimately, Lee Daniels’ The Butler succeeds by weaving so many different elements into an enjoyable tapestry. It’s epic sweep, emotionally resonant characters and wonderful presence make it a film that shouldn’t be missed this summer.