Lee Daniels’ The Butler, though awkwardly titled, is a first-rate movie that tells the story of one of the greatest achievements of American history, the Civil Rights Movement. It is seen through the eyes of a White House butler, whose service extended through eight presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan.
Although fictionalized, the portrayals of “Cecil Gaines” (Forest Whitaker) and his wife “Gloria” (Oprah Winfrey) are based on the real-life story of Eugene Allen and his wife Helene. The couple did have a son Charles, who served in Vietnam, consistent with the movie’s son of the same name (although the Allens’ son did not come home in a coffin). However, a second son, “Louis,” was invented as a means of showing the clash between generations: the father opposing his Freedom Rider son’s radicalism, although eventually coming to see him as the hero he was, and, conversely, Louis coming to view his father’s service in a fairer and more empathetic light, as noble in its own way.
Those who lived through that time will verify the movie’s brutal truth of racial discrimination—none so emphatically, of course, as those who experienced it firsthand. Here is the sorry spectrum of intolerance, from “white only” privileges, to Klan rallies, to the utter obscenities of rapes, lynchings, bombings, and assassinations that characterized the era.
But there is much more, including behind-the-scenes vignettes that reveal the complexities of that period: political maneuverings, relationships that are hopeful or sordid, occasional laughter-provoking moments. These help give the movie a sense of reality that can help younger viewers relate to the larger historical dramas they are witnessing at second hand.
The Butler is well made in every way, including casting. Whitaker’s performance is of course predictably fine. One might have thought that Oprah’s real-life super persona would overshadow her role as the neglected, partying wife, but one would have been wrong. And yes, surprisingly, Robin Williams succeeds as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, and Jane Fonda (!) as Nancy Reagan. The legendary Vanessa Redgrave plays an elderly cotton plantation matriarch, giving the young Cecil his start as a house servant. A very effective technique is the use of film clips so seemingly genuine that we sometimes have to look twice to see that they depict the actor instead of the historical figure he or she plays.
Lee Daniels is the talented African-American director of the film, whose awkward title came about because of Warner Bros.’ pettiness over copyright: there being an earlier silent film titled The Butler, Daniels’ name was added as a solution. He gets the last laugh by producing what is destined to become a movie classic.
Rating: Four wooden nickels (out of four)