Unique view: 'Butler' offers riveting history of race relations

By Richard Roeper

By the time Jane Fonda shows up as Nancy Reagan and we realize that's Alan Rickman beneath the makeup playing Ronald Reagan in Lee Daniels' The Butler, we've been conditioned to expect the unexpected.    

This movie has one of the most astonishing casts of any film I've ever seen – and I mean that mostly in a good way.    

More on all that later. Lee Daniels' The Butler— and we have to use that cumbersome title due to a legal dispute that prevented the studio from calling this The Butler— is a sweeping, often deeply moving look at race relations in 20th-century America as seen through the prism of a man who served in the White House from the Truman administration through the Reagan years.    

Forest Whitaker gives one of the signature performances of his brilliant career as the title character. Playing his wife, Oprah Winfrey deserves award consideration for the rich, nuanced work she does in her first role on the big screen in more than a decade.

Lee Daniels' The Butler is inspired by the true story of Eugene Allen, whose 30-plus years in the White House were chronicled in a 2008 Washington Post article. In this highly fictionalized version, the butler is named Cecil Gaines, who endures unspeakable horrors as a child on a cotton farm in the South in the 1920s, runs off as soon as he's old enough, and through a series of convenient turns of fate and a lot of hard work, finds himself in tuxedo and white gloves in the White House.    

At times it feels as if we're watching an African-American version of Forrest Gump, as the film catalogs more than a half-dozen significant signposts on the mid-20th century timeline as seen through Cecil's eyes.    

Cecil is in the Oval Office as Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams) contemplates some important legislation. John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) shares his personal feelings about racial equality with Cecil. On the night of Nov. 22, 1963, Cecil tries in vain to find the words to comfort Jackie (Minka Kelly), who is still wearing that blood-spattered pink Chanel suit.    

Poor Cecil even has to stand just outside the bathroom as LBJ (Liev Schreiber) relieves himself while talking policy. And he has to weather the drunken, paranoid ramblings of Richard Nixon. (John Cusack plays Nixon as if he's in some sort of Saturday Night Live skit. The performance isn't couched in anything resembling realism, but it's weirdly captivating.)    

In the White House, Cecil's role is to always be there— but never to be seen. Butlers are like umpires; you only notice them when they make mistakes. In Cecil's own home, his wife, Gloria (Winfrey), loves him but is tired of Cecil's endless hours. And then there's Cecil's oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo, excellent in a role that could have come across as a caricature), who goes off to college and becomes a Freedom Rider and later a Black Panther with increasingly diminishing respect for his father's seemingly subservient ways. In one of the film's most effective scenes, a discussion of a Sidney Poitier movie leads to a vicious confrontation between son and father— the kind of argument you can never take back.    

At times, Daniels can't resist the urge to give us "For Your Consideration" moments, e.g., visuals of the White House servants setting the table for an elegant dinner intercut with shocking scenes of young black students (including Cecil's son) being taunted, humiliated, beaten and arrested for sitting at the "Whites Only" section of diners in the South.    

Forest Whitaker plays Cecil as a titan of dignity who understands there are different ways of affecting progress. He quietly campaigns to get equal pay for black White House staffers. He gradually comes to realize the importance of the personal risks taken by his son in the name of a greater cause. At home, he remains a steady presence even as his wife drifts to the bottle and briefly into the arms of a slick semi-charmer played by Terrence Howard. We believe Whitaker as the ambitious young Cecil, and we believe him as the weary-boned, ancient Cecil marveling at the election of the first black president. It's a great performance.    

Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz provide some welcome comic moments and some real warmth as Cecil's colleagues at the White House. Vanessa Redgrave does miracles during the few short moments she has in the scenes on the cotton farm. (Her character could have an entire movie.)    

The stunt casting sometimes causes speed bumps. Rickman is so heavily made up as Reagan, it's as if he's been melded with one of those animatronic creations at the Hall of Presidents in the Magic Kingdom. But even Professor Snape as Ronald Reagan can't detour the movie's mission.    

I believe every American student over the age of 12 should see this film, but that doesn't mean it's one of those good-for-you movies that feels like a history assignment. This is an important film presented as mainstream entertainment. It's a great American story.   

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1 comment

Alan Rickman had the most authentic portrayal of any of the presidents. His distinctive baritone voice was quelled to Reagan's breathy style. His delivery and pacing also mimicked he well. He even wore the slightly crooked smile.