“A true story.” Those words always seem make a movie more appealing and certainly work for ‘The Butler’. In this dramatic movie set in 1950s and 1960s America, Eugene Allen, who worked as a butler in the White House for 34 years, serves as the real life inspiration for the film's central character, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). Raised on a cotton farm, Cecil’s two parents met unkind fates when the farm's young owner, Thomas Westfall, rapes his mother, Hattie Pearl (Mariah Carey). His dad, Earl, then confronts the owner and is shot dead.
Taken in as a house servant, Cecil eventually leaves the farm and finds a job as a butler at the White House. Through his position at the White House, Cecil bears witness to monumental events in America's history as the country moves away from racial segregation.
The film's premise does sound a little ‘Forrest Gump’-like — both even rope Richard Nixon into their plots — although ‘The Butler’ has a lot less running, shrimp and ping-pong. And unlike recent based-on-real-life edge-of-your-seat type thrillers like ‘Argo’ (2012) and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (2012), ‘The Butler’ is a straight up drama. As such, there is a hovering feeling that you're chewing the scenery as we move from one important event to the next.
Thankfully, the movie, for the most part, manages to overcome this with a strong personal story involving Cecil and his family, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and his eldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo). As America is enveloped in the turmoil of the civil rights movement, the family threatens to come apart at the seams because of the differing approaches of the two men in the household: Cecil being hardworking and subservient, while radical Louis prefers to join the movement.
The heavy dose of drama within the family affords the actors many moments to shine. Oprah, in particular, puts on a surprisingly brave performance as a woman struggling to hold herself and her family together (proving that her casting was no publicity stunt). Of course, it's Forest Whitaker who anchors the film, lending an understated dignity and steadfastness to his role. Despite Cecil being a bystander in the grand scheme of things, Whitaker is ever expressive, his eyes showing exactly what an ordinary man is thinking and feeling while watching his country's leaders make decisions directly affecting him and his fellow men.
The intense acting, however, removes any subtlety from the movie and, for some, may undermine the seriousness of the issues at hand with a heavy dose of melodrama.
Details in the movie, such as Cecil at home with his family or the entertaining banter between Cecil and his fellow butlers (Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr.), truly bring out how these characters coped and dealt with their extraordinary circumstances.
Part of the fun is also seeing who Daniels casted to play America’s famous politicians. A few standouts include James Marsden as John F. Kennedy. While he looks a lot younger than JFK did as President, Marsden manages to nail the voice down. Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda play the Reagans, both of them looking uncannily like their real world counterparts. Rickman even exhibits early signs of Alzheimer's that would plague Ronald Reagan in his later life.
Liev Schriber plays Lyndon B. Johnson with the aid of some fantastic make up, and memorably barks orders at his staff while doing his business on the presidential toilet bowl. And perhaps, in the oddest casting choice, one of the nicest guys in Hollywood, John Cusack, plays Richard Nixon. Despite looking nothing like Nixon, Cusack still manages to evoke this president rather well — coming across as a complicated, if not slightly scummy, individual in his first meeting with Cecil.
All in all, ‘The Butler’ is a somewhat predictable movie that clearly aims to tug at the viewer's heartstrings. The movie is helped a lot by its all-star cast, and a strong leading performance from Whitaker alleviates some ho-hum scriptwriting and slow pacing.
While it’s not the most involving movie, ‘The Butler’ scores many points with its ever-present sincerity, emotional impact and sheer ambition to document such a tumultuous era in history. If nothing else, it is also a reminder of how far America, and the world, has come since.