Zimbio Review - 'The Butler' Safely Maneuvers Through Rough Civil Rights Waters

(Robin Williams and Forest Whitaker in Lee Daniels' The Butler. (Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Co.)

The Bottom Line
Should you see it?

The Butler doesn't take chances with its style, but it tells an engaging ultimately fulfilling story with a great ending.
Spanning decades and starring an all-star cast, Lee Daniels' The Butler is an ambitious depiction of the American Civil Rights movement seen through the eyes of a beloved White House employee and his tight-knit family. For a Daniels movie, The Butler is surprisingly tame in the risk-taking department. There's no extreme violence or Nicole Kidman urination scenes, and that's not a bad thing. Like Harmony Korine this year with Spring Breakers, Daniels seems set on appealing to a wider audience. His film glides along through our past, safely revealing an inspiring (sometimes) true story that history hasn't paid attention to.

The Butler introduces Cecil Gaines as a child in the cotton fields of Macon, Georgia. He witnesses his mother's rape and his father's murder in hellish conditions but emerges industrious and parlays his experience working as a "house negro" into a career as a butler. Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is a quiet, respectful young man who becomes so good at making a room feel "empty when I'm in it" that he's recruited to work at the White House. Soon, he's bringing coffee to Dwight D. Eisenhower and witnessing the 20th century's most significant historical events from ground zero. 

Loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, who worked at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for 34 years, Lee Daniels' The Butler (stylized with the director's name because of copyright claims by Warner Brothers) takes many liberties with the story while keeping the bare bones. Allen was raised on a slave plantation; he did serve as a White House butler; but his and his family's names have been changed and Daniels introduces a son to the story, Louis (David Oyelowo), who never existed.

If Cecil is the heart of Daniels' film, Louis is the motor that keeps things moving along. Without him, there's no movie. In fact, Daniels reveals very little about Gaines' actual work in the White House. This isn't Remains of the Day or Downton Abbey, filled with intricate details about butlering, the job is almost trivial to the film as Daniels is much more interested about what's going on outside the White House during Gaines' tenure.

The director is also interested in the Gaines family dynamic. Cecil's wife, Gloria, is played by Oprah Winfrey in slinky silk dresses cloaked in cigarette smoke. It's a sultry performance and Winfrey manages to steal scenes just by showing up. She and Cecil hold equal sway over the family and their relationship is the stabilizing force in Cecil's life. While the world spins furiously outside, Gloria is always there waiting for him when he comes home. The couple watch their oldest son, Louis, defy their wishes and attend a college they disapprove of before rushing headlong into the Civil Rights movement and eventually the Black Panther party. They also lose their youngest son, Charlie (the fantastic Elijah Kelley), when the Vietnam War arrives.

Balancing the two main story lines, Gaines' family and his job, is a delicate task that Daniels handles similarly to how Robert Zemeckis steered Forrest Gump. The Butler is almost episodic as it quickly bounces from historical scene to historical scene, mixing in an incredible cast of characters who are all played by A-list stars. Among the presidents, Alan Rickman stands out as Ronald Reagan and John Cusack lends a smarmy arrogance to Richard Nixon. Cecil's life as a butler includes many presidential interactions that reveal each leader's reliance and trust in the man. Meanwhile, Louis moves to the front of the Civil Rights march, becoming a part of Martin Luther King Jr.'s (True Blood's Nelsan Ellis) inner circle.

The Butler remains entirely compelling throughout as each new scene introduces a new famous face. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz show up as Cecil's fellow butler buddies. Minka Kelly adds some elegance as Jackie Kennedy and Jane Fonda has a (too) small role as Nancy Reagan. The ensemble cast works for the most part, but the stars remain Whitaker, Winfrey, and Oyelowo.

Whitaker is dignified as the proud Gaines who unknowingly advances his people's cause by being the best at what he does, and later, fighting to be paid the same as whites. The Oscar winner has scenes of true intensity with Oyelowo, as Louis misunderstands and abhors his father's career. The two disagree and fall out but find common ground late in life. Whitaker and Oyelowo are magnetic, two of the best voices in the business going at it.

Daniels struggles to provide any real depth to his narrative, choosing instead to encompass dozens of places, people, and events. A narrowly focused storyline might have been more emotionally engaging, but The Butler still manages to evoke true feeling in the Gaines' family life story. The film also has one of the best endings of the year as Cecil retires and he and Gloria witness Barack Obama's inauguration. It's a wonderful payoff after watching the heartbreaking struggle for Civil Rights the entire film. For a historical epic featuring a cast of over 100 actors to achieve such closure is a feat unto itself.

Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.