Combining a compelling story with an ethereal resemblance to the historical presentation in Forrest Gump, Academy Award nominee Lee Daniels has come up with a superior film that has his name in front of it on the marquee. Lee Daniels’ The Butler wasn’t given that title due to his tremendous achievement, or from any egotistical notions. The name change from “The Butler” was mandated by rules involving movie titles.
Starring Oscar winner Forest Whitaker as “Cecil Gaines”, this movie is inspired by the true story of a man who spent more than three decades working as a butler in the White House. Beginning life as the son of “servants” on a Georgia cotton farm, the young Cecil sees his father murdered by the farm’s owner. This results in that murderer’s mother taking the boy into her home and training him to be a “house nigger” (I really do hate that phrase). He leaves home as quickly as possible to make his own way in the world.
Desperate for food he steals from a bakery and is caught by the servant in charge there, “Maynard” (Clarence Williams III). He offers the young adult Cecil a job and then trains and mentors him in the way of being a servant. When Maynard is offered a job as a butler at a Washington, D.C. hotel he passes on the opportunity and instead tells them to hire Cecil. At that hotel Cecil impresses the man in charge of hiring butlers for the White House and from there, he finds himself in the Oval Office serving President Eisenhower (Robin Williams).
Along the way Cecil marries “Gloria” (Oprah Winfrey) who he met on the job at that hotel. They have two children, “Louis” (David Oyelowo) and “Charlie” (Elijah Kelley). He befriends the head butler at the White House (Cuba Gooding Jr) and his next door neighbor, (Terrence Howard). But when Louis goes off to attend Fisk University and gets involved in the civil rights movement, it will cause strife in the Gaines household. The rest of the film is a dual-track story, tracing the trials and tribulations faced by Louis as he becomes a Freedom Rider, while the audience watches Cecil serving one President after another.
The script is good, but it’s the acting that makes this a must-see movie. Whitaker, brilliant in The Last King of Scotland (for which he won Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA awards) may have surpassed that brilliance in this performance. People forget that Oprah Winfrey is one very talented actress because of her success in other areas, and she reminds us of this fact through an outstanding turn here. David Oyelowo has the camera and the audience enthralled. Most of the actors portraying prior Presidents are very good, but the work by John Cusack in portraying Richard Nixon stands head and shoulders above this talented crowd. The moments where we see a bloated, distraught Nixon who is about to become the only President in history to resign his office are especially effective.
Don’t be surprised if we see Lee Daniels and some of this film’s actors in the Oscar discussion that is just getting started.