Hollywood has a spotty track record when it comes to historical dramas. The accuracy of filmmakers in depicting real events and real people can often go by the wayside in order to create stories that they feel are more entertaining.
That’s the worry I had with the new film, “The Butler,” which after a long legal battle between Warner Brothers and the Weinstein Company, is now known as, “Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler.’” (Warner Brothers had made a short film in 1916 called, “The Butler” and wouldn’t let the Weinstein Company use the same title. Obviously someone had a grudge.) The opening credits inform the audience that the movie is “inspired by real events,” something that always make me a little wary. “Argo,” for example, played fairly loosely with the facts even though it was highly entertaining.
The inspiration for the film comes from the amazing life of Eugene Allen, an African-American butler who served in the White House under eight U.S. Presidents, starting with Harry Truman. In the screenplay by Danny Strong, (“Game Change) the character portrayed by Forest Whitaker is renamed as “Cecil Gaines,” and is a composite of other presidential butlers.
The film begins in the south where young Cecil and his family experience devastating personal tragedy at the hands of a racist landowner. (Look for Mariah Carey who has two short scenes as Cecil’s mom.) The boy becomes a man and eventually winds up in Washington, D.C., working in an elegant hotel restaurant. He’s learned the art of graciously serving the movers and shakers of society their martinis while pretending not to notice their sometimes hateful comments. This skill of blending into the background gets him an interview for a position as a butler at the White House. Whitaker delivers a masterful scene in which he wins over his future boss by demonstrating all the charm, knowledge, and political finesse he’s learned serving the wealthy elite.
As he begins the job, (in the movie his first president is Dwight Eisenhower, played by the bizarre choice of Robin Williams, while in real-life it was Truman) Cecil discovers he’s a fly-on-the-wall of history, witnessing everything from the tragic aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson’s larger-than-life outbursts, to Richard Nixon’s Watergate downfall and Ronald Reagan’s charm. Director Daniels’ choice of actors to play the Presidents has mixed results. Alan Rickman is surprisingly good as Reagan, as is Liev Schreiber as LBJ. James Marsden lacks the charisma to properly play JFK, while John Cusack is quite smarmy as Richard Nixon. One particularly brilliant casting choice is Jane Fonda making a short but memorable appearance as a gracious Nancy Reagan.
Most of the movie’s heart, however, comes courtesy of Cecil’s family and home life. His wife Gloria is played by media powerhouse Oprah Winfrey, doing a fine job in her first live action movie since 1998’s “Beloved.” Her character is a woman with a number of internal conflicts but who is proud of her husband. But by far the featured relationship is that between Cecil and his headstrong eldest son – Louis – eventually played by British actor David Oyelowo. Father and son have a number of differing viewpoints that grow more evident when the young man goes off to college. During the next few years he has a Forrest Gump-like talent for being in the front row of a steady stream of major civil rights events. They range from restaurant sit-ins where black patrons demand to be served at the whites-only counter, to Freedom Rider bus tours, to the Black Panthers movement. Louis is even with Martin Luther King shortly before his assassination, getting a lesson from the civil rights leader. The movie is taking a lot of dramatic license, but the emotional impact is undeniable. Director Daniels takes a scene of protesting diners being assaulted at a Woolworth counter and intercuts it with shots of Cecil and the White House staff setting tables for a formal State dinner. It’s a very powerful moment. Unfortunately there’s a few times when the movie does get a little predictable and melodramatic. When one key character announces he’s going to Vietnam, you can guess what’s probably coming next.
Overall, the acting is first rate, with a cast that includes Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz and Terrence Howard, As for Forest Whitaker – he once again proves his talent, delivering a performance filled with dignity and strength. At the end of the film, it’s clear his character is a strong a person as anyone who has ever entered the White House.
3 popcorn boxes out of 4