phrase “based on a true story” is stretched to the limits by Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a largely
fictional look at 20th century American history as seen through the eyes (and
experiences) of a White House butler who served seven U.S. presidents. Yet
there is enough truth in the larger picture it paints to validate the film in
spite of its forays into melodrama and sentimentality. The finely-tuned
performances by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey seal the deal, enriching the
movie beyond the mere words in Danny Strong’s wide-ranging screenplay. Vintage
news footage, blended with recreations, recall The Help in setting a historical context for the parade of
often-painful events that marked the Civil Rights movement.
The movie was inspired by a Washington Post article about a man named Eugene Allen, who served as a White House butler for thirty years and lived to see a black man elected President. In this Hollywood rendering he has been renamed Cecil Gaines and reinvented so the story can start on a note of outrage, as a Southern boy’s mother is raped and his father murdered in cold blood by the no-account son of a plantation owner. Young Cecil is taught by his mistress (Vanessa Redgrave) to get on with his life, as she takes him into her house and indoctrinates him in the protocol of serving white folks—and remaining invisible in their presence. That is exactly what he does for the rest of his life, eventually earning a place on the White House staff.
Needless to say, this hard-working man’s two sons follow divergent paths, one proudly volunteering to serve in Vietnam while the other (David Oyelowo) becomes a student radical and a freedom rider, which his compliant father simply cannot comprehend. Gaines’ wife (Winfrey) has challenges of her own with a husband who seems more devoted to his job than he does to his own family and household.
Every time the film threatens to waver, its actors bring it back on course. In a role that calls for stillness and underplaying, Forest Whitaker is a marvel. With the help of Matthew Mungle’s makeup (as well as wardrobe, attitude, and body language) he ages believably, decade by decade, bearing the weight of each new challenge and earning the respect and affection of each President along the way. Oprah Winfrey is his match, breathing life into a surprisingly colorful and multifaceted character; she is utterly unaffected and completely disarming.
There are no weak links in the diverse ensemble, and even the “stunt casting” of U.S. presidents pays off, as no one is on screen so long as to warrant intense scrutiny. It’s especially fun to watch Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald and Nancy Reagan; they’re simply perfect.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler reminds us what black people had to endure in order to survive in a white man’s world. But the film is at its best when it shows us the interaction of the White House staff (including Gaines’ cohorts, well played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz) and lighthearted moments at Cecil’s home with friends and family, enjoying the fruits of his labors.
Cecil Gaines may be a fictionalized character, but he carries a lot of weight on his shoulders, beautifully interpreted by Forest Whitaker. As a history lesson the movie is superficial at best, but as a social time capsule it has relevance and merit.