Review: ‘The Butler’ does the trick

By Flint McColgan

At its heart, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a family drama that happens to take place from the cotton fields of the deeply segregated south to the rise of the first black president of the United States.

The epicness of such a timeline, and the many changes in civil rights that took place from the 1920s to the 2000s, is offset in that each of the major events actually seems to serve as a framing device as a father, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), and son, Louis (David Oyelowo, seen as one of the soldiers in the beginning of 2012’s “Lincoln”), reconcile their differences and find common ground in establishing their place in a white-dominated world.

“This is their world, we just live in it,” is what Cecil’s father told him when he was just a boy working in the cotton fields as a white overseer took his mother into a shed to rape her. Soon after that, Cecil’s father is shot in the head for just saying “Hey,” to the man and looking him straight in the eye after his wife was raped.

In contrast, years later, Louis has a relatively more comfortable life growing up in a home in Washington D.C. as his father works at a premier hotel as a waiter and his mother, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), stays at home to raise him and his younger brother, Charlie (Elijah Kelley, as the older version, from 2007’s “Hairspray.”)

It’s the upbringing that seems to separate the two views. Cecil was amazed at the comfort serving white men of power and influence could give him. He didn’t mind his place in the world as long as their weren’t the terrible hardships of his youth. Louis, though, already has that comfort and better sees the differences that still remain from the white and black worlds.

You see, the owner of the cotton plantation, after telling Cecil he wasn’t allowed to cry over his dead father, brought him to work inside the house. He was told to be invisible and that when he is serving, the room should feel empty of his presence.

Later, he leaves the plantation to seek a better life. But he can’t get employed, is hungry, and scared of the hateful world around him where white people can seem to get away with anything (horrifyingly shown as Cecil passes by two black people lynched in an alley). But he finds a hotel in North Carolina where he can begin again as a server. Then on to the swankier D.C. hotel. Then to the White House.

He served under presidents Eisenhower through Reagan, a constant, if rather silent, presence through that entire period of great social change.

The presidents, though, are a little distracting. It’s hard not to be removed from the narrative of the story as an evolving selection of A-list movie stars try their hand at the presidents starting with Robin Williams’ take on a thoughtful, kind, Eisenhower pained over what he must do to protect black students as schools in the south are integrated and Arkansas puts up a fight. Even more distracting is John Cusack as Nixon with a long, fake nose. At least Nixon, in this film, was the first person to seek out the opinions of his black wait staff on how best to help out “their people,” if only at the chance of gaining their support for his re-election.

The two bright spots are Liev Schreiber (he played “Cotton” in the Scream series of horror movies) as Lyndon Johnson and James Marsden (the bad Navy officer in this year’s “2 Guns”) as John F. Kennedy. Marsden plays his hand the slightest out of all the presidents, throwing in a soft Kennedy accent with charisma to match. Schreiber, though, plays up the intimidation ploys Johnson was known to employ to keep his staff subservient, like giving them orders through an open bathroom door and a harsh demeanor even when he’s imparting an otherwise kindhearted message.

Also, British actor Alan Rickman (Professor Snape from the Harry Potter franchise) looks exactly like Ronald Reagan in his makeup and plays Reagan rather well.

Behind it all, the other events of the decades are played out in the background as Cecil continues to serve his way through. It’s been noted continuously that this is rather like a Civil Rights take on Forrest Gump.

From the anti-Vietnam movement came the Black Panther Party, which young Louis joins after purposely choosing the black Fisk University, an epicenter of black radical thought in the 1960s. This couldn’t oppose Cecil’s own take on improving his lot in life.

In fact, a chance encounter with Martin Luther King Jr. opens Louis’ eyes to the fact that, despite being embarrassed that his father serves the oppressing racial patriarchy, his father is subversive in his own right by serving as a hardworking, dependable, high-classed and visible contrast to the white person’s view of blacks.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler isn’t as pretentious a title as it may first appear. The studio was forced to insert the director’s name before the title due to a copyright claim by Warner Bros. Pictures, but that doesn’t change the fact that this movie is going for all the accolades it can muster.

The fine life in the White House, served in delicate precision by Cecil, is contrasted back-to-back with images of Louis and his radical friends as they sit in the “White” section of a Woolworth’s and get spit on, shoved, burned and severely beaten by an angry white mob.

The most violent image, though, is one of a Klan member throwing a molotov cocktail into a full Freedom Rider bus as the others trap the occupants inside.

It was a nasty time, but Daniels wisely decided to show the negatives of all sides involved, rather than preach at the audience. Understandably, but serving very little in furthering public perception, black people take to the streets in fury after King’s assasination.

There is much more to this epic movie and it shouldn’t be missed, even if you do shed a tear or two in the dark theater.

Four stars out of five.