Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” is a 2013 historical film directed by Lee Daniels and starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, and John Cusack. The Butler is a fictionalized version of the life of Eugene Allen (Cecil Gaines in this film) who acted as head butler for the White House between 1952 and 1986. The film paints the story of Cecil and his family within the backdrop of the changes to the political and racial landscape between this time period.
The film opens to a day in Cecil Gaines’ childhood where his father is murdered by the plantation owner who had also raped his mother. This event lead to him being taken to serve inside of the house instead of as a field hand by the other owner of the plantation. Cecil eventually leaves the plantation and finds work as a butler in a restaurant he stole cake from in the middle of poverty induced starvation. This would set the stage for his life as he progresses from the restaurant to a hotel in Washington D.C. where he would meet his wife (played by Oprah Winfrey) and eventually be asked to become a butler in the employ of the White House. The rest of the film follows and juxtaposes the events in Cecil’s family life, the actions of the sitting president and his administration, the promotion of the civil rights movement by Cecil’s oldest son Louis, and various moments in US history such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War, and the King assassination riots. Throughout this stretch of time both Cecil and Louis go through life and perception changing events that shape and mold their images of themselves and each other. The film closes with Cecil meeting Barack Obama after his inauguration as president of the United States.
“The Butler” is a spectacular retelling of the American civil rights movement through a set of viewpoints that historical retellings often are not told by: a servant to the men responsible for responding to the events as well as the view of a family man who has no battles or crusades and merely wants to live a peaceful life. Forest Whitaker gives a masterful performance that creates a deep level of empathy with Cecil through the best and worst parts of his life and makes Cecil Gaines a character to root for throughout the film. While John Cusack as Richard Nixon and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan gave rather good performances, it can be rather immersion breaking if the two’s political views are known. While there were no bad performances in “The Butler,” it sometimes feels like the presidents and first ladies were chosen purely based on who the film crew wanted to work with that week. Furthermore, the film has a complete lack of subtlety which, depending on the part of the movie, can be hit or miss. Ultimentally, Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” is a powerful portrayal a turbulent part of this nation’s history that should be seen by the masses.