Directed by: Lee Daniels
Written by: Danny Strong
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr.
Throughout history and all of the defining moments of our civilizations, there have been the big names making the critical decisions resulting in our formation. However, there within the fringes are the people who witnessed everything occurring and left their marks in smaller ways, who still deserve praise and recognition. The Butler highlights one of those people and how one’s profession intersects with their personal life.
After leaving the deep south and getting an education in servitude, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) has worked his way up to serving as a butler for the White House. His work allowed him to serve several presidents, where he learned plenty from behind the scenes but must contend with a politically active son amidst the civil rights movement.
When initially joining the butler crew of the White House, Cecil was asked one important question, “Are you political?” Cecil answered “no,” which sets up the driving issue the protagonist must face for this entire feature. As a butler serving whoever lives in the White House, Cecil never had the opportunity to have political opinions because the men he serves may wear red or blue. He’s forced to have a neutral position no matter the circumstance, but he faces a challenge when his son fights against this ideal.
The connection between Cecil and his son Louis (David Oyelowo) creates the biggest conflict of the film, as Louis sees his father as nothing impressive while he risks his life to fight for equality. While this film recounts the true life and story of Cecil, the character of Louis is fictional to create this difference between the two. It explains why Louis has a presence in many of the notable moments in the civil rights movement. It includes the sit-ins, the Freedom Riders, the march in Birmingham, and other collaborations with civil rights leaders. The politically active son serves almost as the opposite of his father because Cecil cares for the safety of Louis even if he may admire the greater work being done. It causes the ultimate moments of growth between the two.
Certainly one of the more fascinating aspects of this feature revolves around the different presidents and who would portray them. For The Butler, they rounded up quite the cast to portray them. Cecil began serving Dwight D. Eisenhower played by Robin Williams and then John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Richard Nixon (John Cusack), and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman). All very different presidents in their ideologies but each portrayed by an excellent actor. The stacked cast does not end there when including talents like Jane Fonda, Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrene Howard, Mariah Carey, and even Oprah. Such an amalgamation of talent assembled for this film, but the story remains between Cecil and Louis both portrayed beautifully by Forest Whitaker and David Oyelowo respectively.
Whitaker has been a staple in Hollywood for decades and has worked with countless great directors throughout his illustrious career. He handles this graceful character with such power and cares to ensure his story is told well. David Oyelowo shines bright as the politically active son, which would only make it obvious he would later excel in portraying Martin Luther King Jr in Selma. Their work as a father-son duo helps in ensuring this becomes the focal point for the entire story. Each scene felt real between them from those of appreciation and the moments of pain and anger. These two actors brought such raw power to these performances and it helped drive the purpose of the entire feature.
While the film gets its point across overall, the sheer amount of time and topics it needed to cover did leave some moments feeling fairly shallow. With a runtime of 132 minutes, it already felt long, and the moments it covered needed more time to marinate rather than simply being something passing through the story. Over the grand scheme of the narrative, it may make sense to handle it in this manner, but once the credits roll, it did leave me rather disappointed with the potential it left behind.
Even with the small gripes I have with its narrative choices, The Butler still proves to be a strong feature telling the story of an unknown but important man in our nation’s history. The evolution and experience of this man speak wonders about what he did in serving this nation and his fellow people. The bookends for the story have such a strong resonance, which makes his telling his story all the more important.