“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” That epigraph from Dr. Martin Luther King opens the film. Director Lee Daniel’s (Precious) ‘The Butler’ is an ambitious, epic tale. The story covers the Civil Rights movement from the perspective of a White House butler who served eight presidents during his tenure. It’s a fictionalized portrait based on a true story. If you’re looking for a history lesson, this is not a PBS documentary on the Black experience in America. It is more like an innocent bystander’s point of view like in ‘Forrest Gump.’ What ‘The Butler’ does so effectively well is remind us it was just a few decades ago in our country’s history that African Americans were segregated and treated like second-class citizens.
The story chronicles the life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), an uneducated son of Georgia sharecroppers. The white matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) brings him into the plantation house to train him as a servant. These skills eventually land him a serving position at a tony hotel in Washington D.C. that caters to important politicians. Cecil is so good at what he does he gets the attention of a key White House staffer that offers him a butler position. Early on, the head butler tells him, “You hear nothing; you see nothing; you only serve.”
Cecil’s wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is proud of him. It’s a strong performance from Winfrey. Because the butler duties require long hours, she deals with her loneliness by drinking too much booze and flirting with her neighbor Howard (Terrence Howard). This is the distracting part of the story that seems unnecessary. You cannot help but wonder if the screenwriter Danny Strong added to it in order for Winfrey’s character to have more to do. Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo) is not proud of his father’s job. It inspires him to become involved in the Civil Rights movement. He joins the Freedom Riders and the sit-in scene at an all-white lunch counter is extremely powerful. Louis eventually joins the Black Panthers and becomes estranged from Cecil. Although this part of the story is fictionalized, the father-son conflict is heartfelt.
The glimpse inside the White House at some of the presidents is fun to watch. Does John Cusack really play Richard Nixon? Hard to imagine but he pulls it off convincingly well. As a matter of fact, all the presidential performances are commendable. The presidents are used to the staff as being invisible and openly discuss sensitive issues. Occasionally, they even ask for Cecil’s thoughts. He wisely refrains from giving his opinions. Surprisingly, it is the First Ladies who steal the spotlight. Jackie Kennedy played by Minka Kelly is exceptional. After President Kennedy (James Mardsen) is shot, it is heartbreaking as she cries in her blood-stained pink dress. Jane Fonda’s Nancy Reagan is spot on. You’ll do a double-take since the resemblance is so uncanny. Other notable moments in the White House include Cecil’s co-workers played well by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz. We get to see their other face as they joke around the locker room between shifts.
Although loosely based on a true story, it is the lead performances of Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey that keep the story from derailing into melodrama. Without question, Whitaker deserves a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his remarkable performance. With the use of historical events, Daniels manages to remind us what African Americans had to endure during the Civil Rights era. Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler’ is now playing at The Flicks and a local theater near you. Check out the official trailer from The Weinstein Company: http://youtu.be/9uBXH_DLxsU.