Lee Daniels’ The Butler is creaky and sentimental and schmaltzy. The movie lacks any of the unhinged qualities of Daniels’ previous films ( The Paperboy, Precious, Shadowboxer). He’s on his best behavior here, because he knows he’s making a prestigious picture, and he plays to the back row, too. The film is about as subtle as a piano falling on your head.
But even though you may roll your eyes at the movie, you can’t dismiss it outright, either. Inspired by a Washington Post article about Eugene Allen, who was the White House’s head butler for 34 years, the movie centers on Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who grew up on a cotton plantation in 1926 where he learned the proper etiquette of the times on serving white people. After witnessing a tragedy, he runs away and gets a series of jobs at luxury hotels, marries the gregarious Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and fathers two sons. His spotless record and experience land him a job interview at the White House in 1957, where he’s hired as part of the kitchen staff and given stern instructions: “You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve.”
Beautifully played with grace and restraint by Whitaker, Cecil becomes a silent witness to history under eight administrations. He has at least one important encounter with each president: Eisenhower (Robin Williams), who is dealing with the pushback to forced integration in Arkansas; Kennedy (James Marsden) and first lady Jacqueline (Minka Kelly), whom he helps console after the assassination of her husband; Johnson (Liev Schreiber), who asks Cecil for a glass of prune juice while sitting on the toilet; Nixon (John Cusack), who first appeals to Cecil while vice president in hopes of winning the black vote, then later confides in him shortly before his resignation; and Reagan (Alan Rickman), who is torn about a push by Congress to approve an embargo on South Africa over their apartheid policies. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter don’t make the cut.
Juxtaposed with Cecil’s experiences is the increasingly political life that his eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) is leading, joining the Freedom Riders, attacked by the Ku Klux Klan, participating in protest sit-ins and eventually becoming a militant Black Panther. When he visits his parents for dinner with his girlfriend (Yaya Alafia) and calls Sidney Poitier a “rich Uncle Tom” who acts white, the unflappable Cecil loses his cool and kicks his son out of his home, frustrated by Louis’ inability to understand the subtle strides that are being made towards racial equality.
The film’s cast is huge, including warm turns by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as Cecil’s fellow White House staffers and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, who is the first person to recognize his years of duty and address him as a person instead of an employee. Winfrey leans on her own persona to make Gloria a vivacious, likable woman, but her irritation at her husband’s constant absence due to his work duties and a potential affair with a neighbor (Terrence Howard) all feel like padding, a way to round out her character as something other than the protagonist’s wife.
Even though every frame in the movie screams Oscar-bait, the picture is never boring, and its sweeping depiction of the Civil Rights movement, albeit necessarily truncated, keeps the narrative moving. Daniels only loses control near the end, when some bone-headed decisions (including some unintentionally amusing track suits and unconvincing old-age makeup) rob the climax of its power. There are moments, too, when you can feel Daniels holding back and keeping himself in check, because any trace of vulgarity or shock value (two of his favorite storytelling tools) would disrupt the film’s respectable veneer. Still, when compared to something as patronizing and manipulative as Forrest Gump, Lee Daniels’ The Butler comes off as a heartfelt, genuine crowd-pleaser with history on its side.