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The Butler Serves a Moving Slice of Dramatic History

<i>The Butler</i> Serves a Moving Slice of Dramatic History

DVD Release Date: January 14, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: August 16, 2013
Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking)
Genre: Biography/Historical Drama
Run Time: 132 min.
Director: Lee Daniels
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, Mariah Carey, Robin Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, David Oyelowo, Isaac White, Alex Pettyfer, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Liev Schreiber, David Banner

"I find people and what motivates them fascinating. With everything that separates us, we are all the children of God. It may seem strange but not only do I pray for family, friends and complete strangers, but I also pray for the fictional characters in my films. They become real to me. Prayer is free and freeing, a powerful, awesome gift to give. With Lee Daniels’ The Butler, I pray that the audience will receive my messages of hope, healing, guidance, forgiveness, peace and the ultimate, love.” —Lee Daniels on the making of The Butler.

Like he did with last year's little-seen The Paperboy and so memorably with Precious three years before, celebrated director Lee Daniels isn't afraid to punch the viewer right in the gut with Lee Daniels' The Butler.

Inspired by the true story of Eugene Allen, a White House butler who served every U.S. President from 1952-1986, Daniels, along with screenwriter Danny Strong, uses Allen's smaller story as a springboard for an even larger narrative that attempts to recount the long, harrowing struggle for civil rights in America.

It's an exceedingly ambitious history lesson for a movie that clocks in at just over two hours. Despite a few unnecessary plot elements and moments that feel inevitably rushed, The Butler is still a story worth hearing. In what's easily his best performance since winning an Academy Award for The Last King of Scotland in 2006, Forest Whitaker is wonderfully nuanced (not always easy in a Daniels production since subtlety isn't his strong suit) as the titular character, here renamed Cecil Gaines.

After seeing his father (David Banner) killed by the same man who raped his mother (Mariah Carey), it's not surprising that young Cecil wants a career that doesn't involve working in a Georgia cotton field. Perhaps feeling a little convicted about what Cecil has gone through because of her unbelievably cruel hired hand, the plantation's wealthy matriarch Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave, Letters to Juliet) crassly suggests an alternative I won’t repeat here. Basically it involves becoming the perfect servant.

As it turns out, Cecil's knack for remaining invisible while serving dinner and drinks to the upwardly mobile ends up serving him well professionally. After paying his dues at hotels, Cecil is eventually sought out by the White House for a position as a butler, an opportunity of a lifetime as long as he keeps his thoughts on politics to himself.

Considering how much of a promotion the new gig is, Cecil's wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey, keeping most of her Oprah-ness under wraps in a decidedly de-glammed role) is enormously proud. However, the couple's oldest son, Louis (an excellent David Oyelowo, Jack Reacher) is less than impressed. Instead of focusing on his studies at a Nashville university, Louis has turned his attention to becoming a burgeoning young activist. Persecuted beyond belief during freedom rides and even seemingly routine activities, Louis, who has already served jail time, strongly believes his father has sold out for not speaking up.

This juxtaposition of beliefs plays out perfectly in a striking sequence where Cecil is preparing for an elaborate White House dinner while Louis is leading a demonstration at the lunch counter of a segregated coffee shop. As father and son both attend to their respective duties, it ends up being one the film's most memorable and effective moments because the filmmakers actually trust the audience by showing rather than telling.

What’s also intriguing about The Butler is seeing how conflicted the various Commanders in Chief were about the Civil Rights Movement, even as Cecil quietly poured their coffee nearby. As in Lincoln, the viewer gets a ringside seat to how challenging it is to get game-changing legislation passed. In terms of performance, it's a fascinating proposition when such well-known actors are portraying esteemed historical figures. Not surprisingly, some end up faring better than others.

The boyishly handsome James Marsden (Enchanted) and the lovely Minka Kelly (The Kingdom) are a perfect match for President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy, right down to their distinctive accents. But casting John Cusack (The Raven) as Richard Nixon or Robin Williams (The Big Wedding) as Dwight Eisenhower induces head-scratching. Sure, it's probably a good thing the filmmakers chose to focus on the message rather than endless wigs and aging makeup, but one can’t help wondering if choosing unknowns—or axing their inclusion altogether since many don't serve much of a purpose in the larger story—would've been a better choice.

Those quibbles aside, The Butler is mostly successful in satisfying its multi-faceted objectives, and yes, it's quite the opposite of feel-good cinema. A thought-provoking reminder to current (and future) generations of where we've been as a nation, The Butler is effective in revealing how far we still need to go in treating humanity with the respect and dignity it deserves, which is something you'll likely think about long after the credits have rolled.

CAUTIONS: (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Social drinking, and in Gloria's case, way too much of it. Cigarette smoking.
  • Language/Profanity: Racial epithets are used throughout. The presidents routinely misuse God’s name by pairing it with da--. There's a handful of other profanities including sh--, bit--, da--, bast---, as- and a single f-bomb.
  • Sex/Nudity: Kissing. Innuendos and a crude joke about the male anatomy. References to "getting busy." A woman who's shown in her bra is straddling a man. One man is known for sleeping with other men's wives and makes a move on Gloria, who gives him a piece of her mind when refusing his advances.
  • Violence/Crime: A young boy's mother is routinely raped by his father's plantation boss (nothing is shown, but her cries are briefly heard). The same young boy sees his father die by gunfire when his dad dares to stand up for his mother. There are several scenes where African-Americans are mistreated for simply being black. Hot coffee is thrown at a young black man's face. People are trampled, spit at, punched, hit with heavy objects, burned and run over by cars. A freedom bus is set on fire, and there are multiple fatalities. The disturbing visuals of lynchings are shown. A hungry young man breaks a store window so he can eat the cake he sees inside. A couple of scenes involve Vietnam war footage.

Christa Banister is an author and full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the MeddlersBased in Dallas, Texas, she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog.

Publication date: August 6, 2013