Director Lee Daniels faced many daunting tasks while filming Lee Daniels’ The Butler. In addition to the legal wrangling that resulted in adding his name to the title, Daniels had to condense seven decades into two hours, prevent all the famous cameos from becoming a distraction, and effectively demonstrate the conflicts that existed between black fathers and their sons during the Civil Rights Movement.
Forrest Whitaker delivers a stellar performance as Cecil Gaines, the White House butler who believed that the only way to advance in life was to be hard-working and non-confrontational. Two attributes that served Cecil well as he worked through seven presidencies, Eisenhower to Reagan.
His son Louis (David Oyelowo) believed in forcing the issue and taking a stand, behavior that led to threats from the KKK, beatings and incarceration. After Martin Luther King’s death, Louis became even more radical and joined the Black Panthers.
The tension between father and son lasts decades and contributes to even more turmoil in Cecil’s home. His wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is an alcoholic who resents Cecil’s devotion to his job. Despite limited screen time, Winfrey delivers an excellent performance in this supporting role. Other notable supporting actors include Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, and Vanessa Redgrave.
During the 1960s, I was aware of the turbulent race relations in the United States, but this film clarified many of those issues and, more importantly, demonstrated how the White House dynamics changed during the second half of the twentieth century. While “dramatic license” was taken with real-life Eugene Allen’s life (inspiration for Cecil Gaines), all the White House scenes actually happened. I found many of these scenes amusing; in particular, the Lyndon Johnson bathroom scene.
An excellent film worthy of many Oscar nominations. Bring Kleenex—you’ll need it.