Born and raised on a Georgia cotton plantation, African-American Cecil Gaines saw his mother raped and his father shot dead before his eyes before the lady of the house brought him in from the fields and taught him how to be a proper house servant. Eventually, Cecil would go on to become a White House butler, serving under eight different presidents over a 34-year span.
It’s a fascinating story. In fact, I daresay the extraordinary perspective the central character could offer on internal White House politics and goings-on is so compelling that the film didn’t have to fictionalize his background: the real Cecil Gaines, Eugene Allen, grew up in Virginia, and the details involving his parents’ fates were invented by screenwriter Danny Strong (working from a Washington Post article by Wil Haygood.)
Cecil Gaines is played by Forest Whitaker, whose quiet, layered performance gives the film the strong base it needs. Gaines is a compelling character: through hard work and determination, he has risen to the very top of his profession. But he’s still serving whites. And the African-American staff at the White House are still making less than the Caucasian staff.
The Butler (officially titled Lee Daniels’ The Butler for legal reasons) boasts a notable cast filled with familiar faces in the smallest roles; while this can be distracting at times (Cecil’s mother is played by singer Mariah Carey, who doesn’t have a line of dialogue), it works well elsewhere – the presidents are all played by familiar faces, which helps bring an appropriate aura of celebrity to their characterizations.
The film shines during the White House scenes. Robin Williams is Eisenhower, James Marsden is JFK, Liev Schrieber is Lyndon Johnson, John Cusack is Nixon, and Alan Rickman is Reagan, and each performer brings their own unique spin to the role (under the familiar, popular perception of each president – I would have liked a little more insight here).
But these are all glorified cameos – and the film completely skips over the Ford and Carter years. No, the one real fascinating thing about the film – the titular character’s profession – is mere window dressing for an abbreviated Civil Rights lesson – which is heartfelt and (mostly) effective, but pretty familiar stuff.
The big theme of The Butler contrasts Cecil’s daily grind serving presidents at the White House with his son’s indoctrination into the Civil Rights movement, covering the usual stuff from diner sit-ins to the Freedom Riders to Martin Luther King, Jr. up to the Black Panthers. Cecil’s son Louis is played by David Oyelowo, while Oprah Winfrey stars as his wife Gloria.
For good measure, Vietnam is thrown into the mix, too, as Cecil’s other son, Charlie, enlists. As the film checks off important events in Civil Rights-era America, it begins to feel a heckuva lot like Forrest Gump. It goes without saying that all the stuff about Cecil’s sons was fictionalized for the film.
The Butler was not the film I wanted it to be – an insightful look inside the White House over the years from the butler’s point of view – nor is it a particularly profound or original overview of Civil Rights-era America. But it is good enough: good enough to respectfully tell this story and entertain at a 2+ hour length. And the contrast between Cecil Gaines, representing middle-class African American society, and his older son, representing the “radicals” that fought for change, is still pretty compelling, even if the film is a little too hard on Cecil.