When we first heard Lee Daniels (Precious) was tackling the true story of the real life butler who served seven presidents, we wondered how he would be able to capture 50 years of civil rights in just over two hours. In hindsight, that was a silly question as Daniels’ The Butler triumphs by hitting all the right notes to create a symphony of historical resonance.
Forest Whitaker is The Butler -- Cecil Gaines -- and as we meet him in the opening moments of Daniels’ film, he is a young boy working alongside his father in the cotton fields. Tragedy strikes almost immediately. That moment may have shaped Gaines, but as we see over the film, it will not define him.
After leaving the fields behind, he heads to not-so greener pastures working as a butler/servant at a high class (yet bigoted) country club. There he meets a man who will change his life and send him on a path of witnessing a drastic societal change in race relations.
Through a series of jobs that has us thinking destiny was riding shotgun on Gaines’ shoulders, he winds up as the White House Butler… first serving Dwight Eisenhower. It was because of that president's willingness to send troops into Arkansas to enforce the federal strike-down of segregation that Gaines first feels the winds of the world altering. He would see, on many levels, the making of seismic change in our country (and arguably we still have a ways to go).
In Daniels' story, Gaines has two sons. One grows up to be a Freedom Rider and then a Black Panther. The other, as stated in The Butler trailer, wants to fight for his country in Vietnam -- while his brother is fighting his country. It is through his familial storyline that Gaines’ view of civil rights is shown to be as thorny as those cotton bushes he used to pick.
Oprah Winfrey portrays his wife and Daniels uses her effectively. In fact, if she is not nominated for an Oscar, it will be a crime. Heck, Whitaker deserves major consideration as well and so too do Daniels and writer Danny Strong for joining forces to achieve the impossible: Capturing five decades of change that would take our story from segregation to Obama’s election in two hours.
And watch out for a slithery Oscar nominee from Hustle and Flow as the Gaines' neighbor, who is custom made for that part! What's fascinating is the love scene that had Terrence Howard talking Oprah's 'Tig Ole Bitties is not even in the movie! It doesn't need it and would have been a distraction to the power of the film as a whole. But, we digress.
Whitaker ages with his character and through his facial gestures, almost more than his actions, we see the effect that change brings. His cohorts in the White House, played with perfect panache by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, don’t get lost in the blaze of glory that is Whitaker’s performance. Every actor and every storyline weaved in this powerful tale gets their own spotlight. The Butler is as much of an ensemble as can be and as such, it is a multi-dimensional story that reflects the power of the reality it portrays.
Our The Butler review finds the casting of the presidents Gaines served could have been a gimmick. But, Robin Williams channels Eisenhower as soft spoken but powerful, James Marsden’s Kennedy is played as an agent of change moved by simply knowing his butler, and Liev Schreiber has a blast as Johnson. John Cusack captures Nixon’s demons and surprising heart, and Alan Rickman’s Reagan is spot-on. And the first ladies are not wallflowers either in Daniels’ film. Particularly powerful is Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan while Minka Kelly is utterly tragic as Jackie.
The powerful cast collective doesn’t stop there, as Gaines’ son who becomes a Black Panther, David Oyelowo, may be The Butler’s biggest surprise. To play a man from teenager to an adult grossly affected by history, the young actor is inspiring. But, then again, so is this entire film.