“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is an engrossing and absorbing story about the civil rights struggle as seen through the eyes of an African American butler (Forest Whitaker) who served under 7 presidents. It’s also very heavily fictionalized, which doesn’t make it any less compelling, but bear in mind that the words “inspired by a true story” do not mean that you’re watching a “true story.”
By no means is this a White House “Upstairs, Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey.” The presidents served by the main character are very minor characters, played by a remarkably consistently miscast array of big names, from Robin Williams, bearing no resemblance at all to Eisenhower, to John Cusack bearing even less resemblance to Nixon, to Alan Rickman playing Professor Snape with Reagan’s haircut. (James Marsden doesn’t look like JFK but does sound remarkably like him.) In fact this is a very old-fashioned Hollywood biopic, from the heavy fictionalization to a highly satisfying, though very Hollywood ending.
Inspired by Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election” about the real life of former butler Eugene Allen, the film begins in 1924 with a young Cecil living in the still-viciously segregated South. In the movie, Cecil’s father is murdered after confronting his employer (Alex Pettyfer) over raping his wife (Mariah Carey). This harrowing incident is apparently fictional. After years spent working in a hotel, Cecil is discovered by a White House staffer, leading to a job as a butler at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue itself. At the White House, Cecil becomes a witness to history as the civil rights movement unfolds.
Cecil and his alcoholic wife (Oprah Winfrey) must grapple with their militant son Louis (David Oyelowo) whose involvement in the civil rights movement, which progresses from marching with Martin Luther King to the Black Panthers, often puts him in dangerous situations and at perpetual odds with his father. The father/son conflict is one of the movie’s most compelling aspects, which makes it disappointing to report that Louis is a wholly fictional character.
If director Lee Daniels (“Precious”) takes a heavy hand when it comes to portraying the struggle for civil rights, it might be noted that there was nothing subtle about using police dogs, fire hoses and billy clubs on peaceful, unarmed demonstrators either. Like “The Help” and “42,” this is a film whose uncompromising dramatizations of virulent, venal and vicious racism are likely to make viewers squirm.
Whitaker, an intelligent and perceptive actor, applies a less-is-more approach to his performance and the results are convincing. He is occasionally undermined by some dimwitted and utterly unnecessary voiceover narration that tends particularly rear its head during transitions in time. Not only is this a lazy and unimaginative technique, it’s not even logical in a story like this, where there are multiple key scenes not featuring the lead character. How are you narrating stuff you weren’t there to see?
Shortcomings in the script notwithstanding, there’s no denying that this is an absorbing, often powerful story, if only for its subject matter. The performances are strong across the board (portrayals of the presidents notwithstanding). David Oyelowo should break through on this one, shining in a role that allows him range and depth.
Oprah Winfrey is an enormously distracting presence at first, through no fault of her own. The fact is, she’s one of the most famous people on the planet, and not for acting, so when you see her in a movie it’s hard not to say “Oh, there’s Oprah.” It’s very much to her credit that her performance is so good that you do eventually stop noticing her and start just paying attention to her character.
“Lee Daniels The Butler” (and yes, that is the full, official title after a heated industry legal skirmish) is a thoroughly engrossing drama, despite its minor flaws. It is, however, essentially historical fiction. If that’s okay with you, and it should be, it’s well worth the time.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is now playing in Capital District theaters including The Bow Tie Movieland in Schenectady, The Rotterdam Square Cinema, The Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX, The Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13 and The Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX and the Spectrum 7 on Delaware Avenue in Albany.