The Butler: Absolutely Beautiful

Film and literature based on real history have always been very interesting to me; I never fail to find it amazing how sometimes looking into just the right life can reveal a fascinating narrative amidst events we know will help shape the world. A well-done historical narrative can make a story with its roots in true events and all the more meaningful for the perspective it gives on those events, and Lee Daniels’ The Butler is such a narrative.

The Butler follows the life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a character based on Eugene Allen, the butler who served in the white house through eight presidential administrations. The son of a sharecropper, Cecil begins his life in the South where his father is murdered and his mother raped by their white landlord; in an awkward attempt at recompense, the man’s family employs young Cecil as a domestic servant before he strikes out on his own as a young man. Cecil’s skills from childhood allow him to land a job as a hotel valet, where he works his way up to a position in a high-caliber Washington D.C. hotel, noted for his competence and discretion, particularly in political matters. These qualities do not go unnoticed, and Cecil’s performance gains him a job offer to work as a butler in the White House under President Eisenhower (Robin Williams). From there, the film shows Cecil’s life as a quiet, passive observer of some of the most powerful men in the world, alongside the ups and downs of his relationship with his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and his strained relationship with his son Louis (David Oyelowo), an active participant in many of the stages of the Civil Rights Movement. Cecil’s life provides a new perspective on a long and volatile period in American history, not only seeing each president’s private reaction to the goings-on in the country while keeping his thoughts to himself and working up to a position to subtly influence the conditions of his fellow black staff for the better, but also an atypical look at the Civil Rights Movement, primarily from the perspective not of Louis, the active participant fighting for equality alongside both Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panthers, but of his father, a non-participant frightened his oldest boy will get himself killed campaigning for Civil Rights and increasingly unable to connect with his son over such a large gulf.

The Butler has numerous virtues; its narrative is strong, interesting, and emotional with deep roots in the truth, its dialogue is well-written and charming, and its shooting is beautifully done. But I would say that the strongest of The Butler’s virtues is its acting. Everyone in the film seems to be at their very best, and I would not be surprised if Forest Whitaker or Oprah earns an Oscar for their performance. The supporting cast all play their parts extremely well, and I found it very interesting to watch some of the casting choices for president, despite hardly being my first pick for the roles, work out quite well; Robin Williams plays Eisenhower with a surprising level of gravitas, James Marsden makes an excellent Kennedy, Liev Schreiber is both funny and serious as Johnson, and despite my immense surprise at first recognizing them in the roles, John Cusak as Richard Nixon and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan both do a very good job with their parts. Despite all of the presidents being very recognizable from very different movies, their actors gave the roles their all, and not one stretched my disbelief. The extremely strong cast, one of the best I’ve seen in a while, comes together with all of The Butler’s other virtues to produce one of the best period pieces I’ve ever seen, and an all-around amazing movie.

If you are at all a history buff, or have any interest in the Civil Rights Movement, I strongly recommend owning The Butler, and even if you aren’t, its many strengths as a movie in its own right make it well worth a watch anyhow.

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