August 23, 2013
"The Butler" tells us the life story of Cecil Gaines, from his childhood on a Southern cotton plantation in the 1920s all the way up to Barack Obama's proclamation as US President. In between, Gaines was a silent witness to the inner workings of the White House as one of its butlers, from the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan.
We actually see more of his personal life. His wife Gloria enjoyed smoking and alcohol and partying. They had two sons. The eldest Louis becomes an activist for black rights. The younger son Charlie becomes a soldier in Vietnam. Through their lives, we see an abbreviated history of the civil rights movement during the 1960s and onwards. It sounds a bit like "Forrest Gump" but here, Cecil Gaines was more of a bystander, never an active participants in these events. That passive nature of the lead character may be where the main fault of this film lies.
The story has been told in many films before, but this one has a unique point of view. However, the main conceit of this movie, as its poster proudly announces, is its all-star cast. A lot of critics decry the use of the most unlikely actors to portray peripheral characters, such as the US Presidents. But for me, these made the film more special to watch, in spite of the fact that these guests were onscreen for barely a few fleeting minutes.
Consider these cameos: Playing the Presidents were Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as Kennedy, Liev Schrieber as LBJ, Jon Cusack as Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Reagan, with Jane Fonda as Nancy. From his cotton plantation days, Mariah Carey plays Cecil's mother, Vanessa Redgrave plays the matriarch who trains Cecil to serve in the house and Alex Pettyfer plays their abusive and ruthless white taskmaster. I personally did not think having these unexpected star appearances in any way detracted from the story telling.
Playing bigger supporting roles were Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as fellow White House butlers, and Terrence Howard plays a philandering neighbor. David Oyelowo plays their eldest son Louis with the striking Yaya Alafia as his activist girlfriend. Elijah Kelly plays the younger son Charlie.
Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey play the central roles of Cecil and Gloria Gaines. They will age several years and we will see the passage of time through their makeup and costumes. Their acting will definitely earn them nominations come awards season. Forest talks mainly with his uniquely soulful eyes in this quiet and dignified role. Oprah completely and effectively owns all of her scenes as she struggles to stand by her man. It may as well be her Oscar already, as early as now. When I saw Harvey Weinstein's name in the final credits, that Oscar is not a far-fetched possibility. 7/10.