Authentic emotion competes with manufactured sentiment for the heart of Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
The reality-based film (*** out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday nationwide) is both deeply affecting and blatant Oscar bait. It’s inspiring and filled with fine performances, but the insistently swelling musical score and melodramatic moments seem calculated and undercut a powerful story.
A revolving door of stars in quasi-cameos takes the audience out of the movie. Viewers will find themselves musing, “Wow, Jane Fonda really looks like Nancy Reagan!” and “Who knew Robin Williams could look so much like Eisenhower?” or “Wait, was that catatonic woman Mariah Carey?”
It is, however, refreshing to see a mainstream film dominated by black actors, in which white actors have small, supporting roles.
Forest Whitaker is superb as Cecil Gaines, a fictional domestic worker at the White House, who served in seven presidential administrations, from 1957 to 1986. The story is inspired by Wil Haygood’sWashington Post article about real-life presidential butler Eugene Allen. With exquisite subtlety, Whitaker evokes the inner strength and concealed turmoil that belie his subservient post.
Gaines’ story begins when he’s a child in 1926 picking cotton on a Georgia plantation. Disturbing events lead to Gaines working indoors as a servant for an imperious matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave). Forced into servility, he learns fine manners. As a young man, he runs away and lands a job at a tony Washington, D.C., hotel. There, he comes to the attention of an administration official who hires him to work at the White House.
After his poverty-stricken childhood, Gaines is grateful for work that allows him to support his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and sons Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley). Focused on change, Louis clashes with his more deferential father and becomes a Freedom Rider. One of the film’s most moving scenes features Louis protesting at a segregated lunch counter in the South juxtaposed with a white-gloved Gaines quietly serving a sumptuous meal at a White House dinner. Oyelowo gives a masterful performance as the film chronicles the civil rights movement, and director Daniels offers a compelling look at the strikingly different ways two African-American men chose to deal with racial discrimination.
Winfrey has substantial chemistry with Whitaker and gives a solid performance, though it’s hard to forget we’re watching the TV star.
At times, the film comes off as a more serious-minded Forrest Gump in the way it superficially covers key events in U.S. history, with Gaines thrust into these moments. The story is more successful when it focuses on Gaines’ point of view and how his job often bangs up against familial concerns. After President Kennedy (James Marsden) is shot, a shattered Gaines stays late and approaches Jacqueline (Minka Kelly), still wearing her blood-stained pink suit, inquiring if there’s anything he can do to help. She is unresponsive. He goes home to find Gloria upset about family issues. They have a row over his paying more attention to what is going on in the White House than in his own home.
The Butler brings into clear focus how the civil rights struggle paved the way for Barack Obama to become president. The film ends, with just the right sense of portent, after Obama is elected in 2008.
As a sweeping, multi-generational saga, The Butler verges on heavy-handed. But it’s also poignant, powerful and worth seeing.
Courtesy of USA Today