This is not a “Geeky” movie. That being said, it’s also not an easy movie to review. (This is gonna be a long one, so if you’re a “tl:dr” kinda person, then just go see it and decide for yourself!) The scope of this film is so broad, but also so focused, and the subject is a difficult one, even in this day and age. The main thrust of the movie is the African-American Civil Rights movement in 20th century USA. (I specify so much, because there are any number of “civil rights” movements that have happened, in the USA and all over the world, movements long past and some still being fought today.) There are two stories that play out over the course of The Butler: Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) and the path his life has taken, from barely more than a slave to a butler at the White House, and his son’s struggles against racism and oppression in the mid-20th century, at the height of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
I can’t divulge anymore of the plot without just telling you the entire movie (all 132 minutes of it!) so I’m gonna have to go straight into the review. As I said previously, this movie is hard to review. The story takes us from 1926 to 2008, through many presidents, and through a family’s ordeal as father and son vehemently disagree on what it means to be black in the USA. With all that in mind, you can hopefully see how huge this movie really is, and how sensitive the subject can be for many people.
Let’s start with the actors… Forest Whitaker takes on his first, real, leading role, and it’s about damn time. He’s an amazing actor who’s been overlooked for so long, given mainly supporting roles, even in The Last King of Scotland. He takes us on Cecil’s journey from a boy working in a cotton field, seeing the inherent violence and racism of the time, all the way to his job as a White House butler, talking to presidents (when they ask him something) and really just trying to do the best he can for his family. His portrayal of Cecil is quiet, thoughtful, and so amazingly powerful. Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s wife, Gloria, was a surprise to me (not having seen her in a movie before). She’s not the perfect wife, and sometimes life gets the better of her. There were long moments when I completely forgot she was Oprah, so kudos to her for really bringing her character to life. David Oyelowo as Cecil’s son, Louis, is a powerful testament to the tensions that run high in the life of young adults facing prejudice. He plays the character so artfully, so strongly, that you can’t help but cheer for him, hoping he finds the right path.
After Cecil becomes a White House butler, we are favored with an inside look at 5 different presidents, played by excellent, though surprising, actors. We start with Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, and while the look was pretty close, the voice was plain Robin Williams. In a small interlude, we meet a nearly unrecognizable John Cusack as Richard Nixon. Two words: Spot ON! Even the flop sweat was perfect! Next we are treated with James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, and the first time he speaks, be prepared for the “wow” factor. He nails the “prapah Bahstan” accent, and though he’s a bit more attractive, you’re left with the eerie feeling that they could be closely related. Liev Schreiber blew me away as Lyndon B. Johnson. Just how I always pictured him, down to the toilet scene. (Yes, there’s a toilet scene, but nothing disgusting.) We skip over Ford and Carter, à la the “time passes” montage, and then we catch up with Ronald Reagan, as portrayed by an astonishingly meek Alan Rickman. You’ll have to decide for yourself on his greatness, but I was blown away by the transformation. Jane Fonda lends a helping hand as Nancy Reagan, and is utterly believable as such.
Being somewhat young (I don’t recall the 1980’s), and having attended a slew of public schools, all I really know about this civil rights movement are a few key facts that were mandatory learning for tests, and all the tv shows and movies about the subject that I’ve seen. I’m gonna put myself out on a limb here, and I imagine I might get some harsh feedback about what I’m going to say next: Whenever I’ve seen the shows or movies on this matter, I’ve always been left with guilt, merely because I’m white. Most of the stories that have been told so far about this somehow manage to cast nearly every white person in the role of bad guy. I’m not saying the people who acted so horrendously back then weren’t bad people, because anyone who treats another human being as less than human is a bad guy in my book. I’m really just trying to say that, as a white person, seeing all white people cast as the villains can leave a person with some unexplainable guilt. I didn’t do any of that, my family didn’t (I come from a long line of poor folks!), but I would still walk away feeling bad that I’m white, because white people did that. The Butler never once gave me that feeling. Instead, they showed the white people who aided this movement, and the trouble they got for it, same as the black people fighting alongside them. True, the folks doing the harm were all white, but this time it showed both sides, the good and the bad. For that alone, this movie is worth seeing, because I feel it’s a more accurate representation of the struggle, and all the people who were involved.
The only thing I have left to say is that it does seem like a bit of an Oscar grab. The huge, powerful subject matter, the star-studded cast, even the length of the movie kind of screams “Epic Oscar-Winning Drama.” Not that it’s a bad thing, but I’ll be surprised if this movie doesn’t get some serious attention from The Academy.
For the ups, the downs, the highs and the lows, I give The Butler…
9.5 out of 11!
About The Butler
Synopsis: As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect this man’s life, family, and American society.
Directors: Lee Daniels
Writers: Danny Strong, Wil Haygood (article)
Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, James Marsden, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz
Runtime: 132 Min
As an avid Jill-Of-All-Trades, I dabble in many things, but I've always been passionate about writing and photography. I read like a fiend, all sorts of genres and authors, and I hope someday to write my own novels. I've been taking pictures since I was little, and I strive to improve my skills everytime I pick up a camera. I love all kinds of movies, from those terrible-yet-hilarious B movies to the latest superhero blockbusters. I play video games, roleplaying games, even Magic: The Gathering (much to the chagrin of my wallet, at times), because I adore delving into these other, amazing, created worlds. Check out all my interests and projects, or get in touch with me, on my Facebook page at: Http://www.facebook.com/SamanthaCantrellAZ