Movies: "Lee Daniels' The Butler" | Arts & Culture

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Movies: "Lee Daniels' The Butler"
Movies: "Lee Daniels' The Butler"


“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (they had to add the director’s name to the title to avoid conflict with an earlier movie titled “The Butler”) is a heartfelt and often moving story about an African-American White House butler who served eight presidents -- and about the civil rights struggle that he and the nation witnessed during his tenure.


It also features an all-star cast, with some of Hollywood’s biggest names in the roles of assorted presidents, plus Oprah Winfrey.


The story is based in part on the actual life of Eugene Allen, who died in 2010, and who was the basis of an article titled “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” by Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood, written just as Barack Obama was about to be elected.  But in the movie, Allen’s name is changed to Cecil Gaines (wonderfully played by the quietly dignified Forest Whitaker).


We first see Cecil as a young boy on a Georgia cotton plantation, where his parents are brutalized by the owner’s son.  When that owner (Vanessa Redgrave) takes in Cecil to teach him domestic duties, his pathway to the White House is set, with stops along the way at an Atlanta restaurant and a Washington, DC hotel.  When he’s recruited as a presidential butler, Cecil finds himself working alongside Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz.  Nice work if you can get it.


By now, Cecil is married to Gloria (Winfrey) and they have two sons, the oldest of whom, Louis (David Oyelowo, Preacher Green in “The Help”), becomes ever more active in the nascent civil rights movement.  One of the movie’s strongest scenes is a series of cuts between a lunch counter sit-in in the deep South and a formal White House dinner.  As the meal is served in Washington, hot coffee is tossed in the face of a civil rights protester.


The formal, polite Cecil cannot accept this son’s involvement in protest politics.  And he is so obsessed with his White House duties he fails to notice Gloria’s growing drinking problem or the attention his louche neighbor (Terrence Howard) is paying to her.


As his duties continue, we are treated to a series of presidential cameos:  Robin Williams, pretty much vapid as Eisenhower;  John Cusack, terrific as Nixon;  James Marsden (Cyclops in the X-Men movies), dashing as JFK;  Minka Kelly as Jackie;  Liev Scheiber, willing to do a pants-down scene as LBJ;  Alan Rickman, terrific as Reagan;  and, my personal favorite bit of casting, Jane Fonda as a very shrewd Nancy Reagan. 


Producer/director Lee Daniels (“Precious,” “The Paperboy”) has long worked on movies addressing the thorny relationships of blacks and whites in America, and this one is probably the high water mark of that effort.  From lynchings to Ku Klux Klan terror to the anger of the Black Panthers, right up to the election of our first black president, this movie seeks to tell the story of America’s original sin and how some very brave young people forced the nation (and even our reluctant butler) to see it for what it was.


Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey are at the very center of this movie, and both do a great job in their roles.  Whitaker is so powerful as a man who believes in absolute self-control while facing a series of crises;  Winfrey is equally strong as the woman whose husband has found another home in the White House.


The screenplay is by Danny Strong (who also wrote that saucy Sarah Palin movie “Game Change” and appears in “The Butler” as a reporter on one of the freedom rides). The crisp cinematography is by Andrew Dunn (“Gosford Park”,”Crazy Stupid Love”) and the stirring music is by Portugal’s Rodrigo Leao.  


“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is rated PG-13 for scenes of racial violence and adult themes.  It’s a moving story of one black family’s passage through recent history, and I give it a B-Plus.