‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ traces American history in presidential setting

Robin Williams and Forest Whitaker star in 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' — Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company
Robin Williams and Forest Whitaker star in ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ — Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a profound film that attempts to shine light on 20th century American history through the eyes of an African-American butler working for several presidents in the White House. Forest Whitaker, an Oscar winner for The Last King of Scotland, portrays Cecil Gaines, the title character. He’s a quiet man with a great sense of dignity and respect for his profession, even though many of the people he encounters on a daily basis refuse to offer him an equal amount of dignity and respect. Cecil faces discrimination in his employment opportunities, but he continues to hold his head high.

Cecil’s wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), stands by his side and generally loves the fact that her husband is gainfully employed. Together they are able to provide for their two children in D.C.’s suburbs. The main friction comes when Cecil’s eldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), begins questioning his father’s seeming acceptance of the discrimination he faces. Louis, growing up in a  different generation with different opportunities, sees the freedom rides in the South and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as inspirational. He wants in on the fervent action, and he’s willing to get himself arrested to show how much the cause means to him.

Cecil takes a different approach. The inequality of American society upsets him and Gloria, but they take the route of playing by the rules and striving for that paycheck every week. Louis, on the other hand, wants systemic change, and he wants it immediately. The young man’s work in the civil rights movement eventually leads him to the Black Panthers and running for political office. Along the way, Cecil and Louis disagree and argue over each other’s commitment to the cause and to the family.

Daniels’ film, based on a true story and using a script by Danny Strong, is a remarkable synthesis of American history in the last 100 years. This is a personalized way of confronting the issue of discrimination in the nation, and Cecil’s struggles and triumphs become the avenue by which the audience learns so many important lessons. He puts a face on the harsh conditions of working farms in the South, the burgeoning call for equality and the continued protests over apartheid and an end to discrimination. Cecil and Louis, seemingly opposites (although they have a lot in common), give the audience a glimpse into the lives of dedicated Americans who try to make the country work.

The acting from Whitaker, Winfrey and Oyelowo is solid. Whitaker is stoic and strong, showing respect for the many presidents he serves over the years. Winfrey is believable as his wife, a woman with her own failings and yet a dedication to keeping the family together. Oyelowo is perhaps the best of the trio, holding so much simultaneous hurt and enthusiasm on his face, yearning for better days.

The parade of actors who portray the American presidents (John Cusack, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Alan Rickman) sometimes has the movie stray into Forrest Gump land. It’s tough to buy into the characterizations and even tougher to care too much about presidential politics when Cecil’s unbelievable story is waiting to be told. It would have been fine to have these America leaders portrayed through quick glances or two-second cameos. This story is not about them; it’s about a butler and his long, long journey to provide for his family and change the United States from the front lines of society.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Lee Daniels’ The Butler

  • 2013

  • Directed by Lee Daniels

  • Written by Danny Strong

  • Starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Jane Fonda, Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden and Alan Rickman

  • Running time: 130 minutes

  • Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking

  • Rating: ★★★½

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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