Lee Daniel's The Butler is a tribute to African Americans. And to the evolution and struggle of the black woman and man as seen through the eyes of a butler, Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker). Not only is this film about a butler's brutal journey to make a life by overcoming intense hardship, but also his internal struggle to join the fight for civil rights alongside his son Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo) who is the hero of this film. While Gaines is a Butler who is serving eight presidents, he is unable to protect his son who is a freedom fighter. Louis Gaines is being beaten up in Alabama and Tennessee where he has been incarcerated at least 16 times. An understated motion picture makes this true story work. Violence is brief and in flashes. Director Lee Daniels does a good job of juxtaposing the violence with scenes of family life and, thereby, arriving at balance.
While stars abound as pop ups in cameos, this story is not about celebrity, but ideals. It is about the gruesome spilling of blood unfortunately necessary to arrive at the pinnacle of the civil rights movement -- a black president. Barack Obama. So all the celebrity is almost a mute point when one focuses on the issues, the cause, and the history of the African American.
Our nation's suffering is the slow and subtle drumbeat -- mantra -- felt throughout. Perhaps Lee Daniels thought maybe, just maybe, this film will get attention if I pepper it up with rich cameos by celebrities -- though at times I felt this took away from the sincerity of the screenplay. Yes, it was fun to play guess who's coming to or who's serving dinner, but it blocked the forward thrust of the stellar screenplay by Danny Strong based on an article "A Butler Well Served by This Election" by Will Haygood.
Jane Fonda steals the cameo performances by portraying a tender Nancy Reagan. Robin Williams delightfully underplays Dwight Eisenhower. Here as Annabeth Westfall , Vanessa Redgrave's posture relates volumes of empathy for slaves. Mariah Carey plays Hattie Pearl, the mother of a young Cecil Gaines in a brief but poignant moment. Lieb Schreiber is a confused Lyndon Johnson who is filmed constipated and seated on his toilet with his two dogs by his feet as he addresses his butler. Terrence Howard sizzles as Howard the butler who is having a fling with a frustrated Gloria Gaines. Cuba Gooding Jr, as Carter Wilson, serves as his usual comic relief as another White House butler as does Lenny Kravitz. John Cusack is a touching, yet sad and pathetic Richard Nixon. James Marsden as JFK is tender and wise though racked with pain from Addison's disease and Alan Richman is a befuddled and yet compassionate Ronald Reagan.
The music by Rodrigo Leao is used to accent certain moments. almost becoming a character while being effective as is the well composed cinematography by Andrew Dunn.
And lest we not forget the heartfelt and subtle performance of Oprah Winphrey as the butler's wife, Gloria Gaines, who struggles to find a life in the shadow of her husband's celebrated employers -- presidents. Her character is reduced to having a drinking problem because she is frustrated in her need to find a purpose in life. When she, at last, is invited by Nancy Reagan to a dinner party at the White House, she wants so much to dazzle and fit in that she wears a beaded gown more appropriate for a crap table at Caesars. Wisely Winphrey adjusts her buxom cleavage in between courses, both performed in character and thus accentuating the garishness of the dress. Winphreys' performance is not the look -at -me -listen-to-me person we hear and see on talk shows. Her performance is the real sin-cere deal.
But this film belongs to Forrest Whittaker who internalizes the suffering of African Americans until due to aging he is hunched over, shuffling his feet while his character has never stood taller. He is the butler and the link that allows the film's story to be told. Bravo for the story and bravo to Forrest Whittaker. But ultimately telling the story of the struggle of African Americans thru excessive celebrity is like piping in a soundtrack of Hooray for Hollywood in the midst of a race riot in Selma. Inappropriate.