With Hollywood's recent focus on African-American domestic/oppressed characters, it has seemed as though the industry has regressed back to its golden era of blacks being primarily fit for a certain kind of role. What some of these more modern roles have in common, while technically they are of leading status, is that their point of view is often overshadowed by the larger story of their white counterparts.
But that trend may have finally ended with LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER. Director Lee Daniels illuminates the remarkable life of Eugene Allen, who served 34 years (1952-1986) on the wait staff (eventually working his way up to becoming a butler) at the White House. His long tenure saw him through eight presidencies and political landscapes, as he continued to gain the respect--and admiration--of not only each POTUS but his professional peers as well.
While the film fictionalizes many aspects of Allen's true story (even changing his name to Cecil Gaines) for dramatic effect, it stays true its sentiment. We've seen the images of racial strife and political unrest during this era depicted in film before, but never have we seen this period reflected through the eyes of an African-American domestic in a prestigious capacity. It is a fascinating eyewitness account of the history of the White House and U.S. politics, during both the acclaimed and inglorious moments, by an unwaveringly loyal servant who had learned to never make his presence known in even the emptiest of rooms.
An extraordinary story even without the Hollywood treatment, the movie allows for its star-studded cast, led by Forest Whitaker as Gaines, to shine in roles that portray the human aspect of each character. Whitaker, who at first glance doesn't exactly look like the real butler, delivers a performance so compassionate that you forget about their dissimilarities altogether. As a result of his portrayal and Danny Strong's tender screenplay, Gaines isn't only a super in-the-know domestic of the highest proximity, but also a devoted family man and provider whose controversies at home were always at the forefront of his mind, but never disrupted his job at the executive mansion.
Those troubles mostly surround his elder of two sons, Louis (impressively played by David Oyelowo), whose associations with the Black Panthers are often a concern for both his parents, but especially his father who excelled in part due to his own obscurity and quiet forbearance. In several scenes we see father and son clash on politics, ultimately leading up to a blow-up at the dinner table resulting in Gaines kicking Charles (and his barely clad girlfriend, Carol, played by Yaya Alafia) out of the house for good. Meanwhile, Gaines' other son, Charles (Elijah Kelley), is a much more complacent member of the family who provides often a much needed comic relief to the film's more tense scenes (balancing nicely with the far more militant Charles).
The film most succeeds during these more personal scenes. It is not your expected civil rights anthem, though it certainly has moments when you want to shout "Fight the Power!" (particularly the scenes that include actual footage of some of the monumental events during the civil rights moment). But at its core is a heartrending drama between a family that is often divided by political motivation. Even Gaines' sashaying, often alcohol-dependent wife, Gloria (a hardly recognizable Oprah Winfrey), adds further pressure on the patriarch by engaging in an illicit affair with a neighbor (played by Terrence Howard).
Daniels, however, doesn't avoid adding what could be seen as teaching moments in the film. Take, for instance, when a young Gaines (played by LUV's Michael Rainey, Jr.) is taught never refer to himself as the n-word by his first professional mentor (Clarence Williams III) because it's a derogatory word given to him by the white man. These moments are not heavy-handed, but they do slightly remove you from the story. But they sound a whole lot less cringe-worthy than "You iz kind, you iz important..."
One cannot say enough about the film's gargantuan cast, each person committed to their varied characters and significance in Gaines' life. While Mariah Carey's very limited dialogue covers up her somewhat emotionless brief performance as Gaines' long-suffering mother (as does Minka Kelly's unconvincing Jacqueline Kennedy), the rest of the sumptuous actors are like a who's who in Hollywood. Cuba Gooding, Jr. (in what is hopefully a career-turning performance) and Lenny Kravitz play friends and colleagues of Gaines who further highlight his most personal moments.
James Marsden, who is rarely ever an actor worth mentioning in a movie, has managed to impress audiences in two back-to-back roles this summer (the previous being in the unfortunate 2 Guns). Here he plays JFK as a benevolent and ill-fated president ahead of his time. Liev Schreiber steps into the shoes of Lyndon B. Johnson. Robin Williams is Dwight D. Eisenhower. John Cusack is Richard Nixon. Jane Fonda is Nancy Reagan. True Blood's Nelsan Ellis as Martin Luther King, Jr. Vanessa Redgrave and Pariah's Pernell Walker round out the film's most notable cast.
Daniels' keen direction brought out the best in this massive cast. A film that is surely no simple feat that was tremendously researched is executed seamlessly and doused with raw affection and riveting conflict at every turn. It further compels with a soulful soundtrack indicative of the years it spans, including old school gospel, to some rock n roll and plenty of other soulful tunes. If there was one thing Daniels could have added to the film it would have been the presence of such black power players as Sammy Davis, Jr. and other notables stream through the official residence. While whites dominated the house, it is known that as time had progressed black celebrities and other personalities occasionally visited. Without their presence, the film appears strikingly monolithic on both sides. This is probably intentional to convey a point, but deserves noting.
Gripping, authentic and heartrending, LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER is probably one of the biggest surprises to enter the awards race this upcoming season from a director who (even at his worst) has never shied away from a challenge.
For more on Allen's story, read Will Haygood's Washington Post article that inspired the film.
Rating: B+ (***1/2 out of *****)
LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER is in theaters Friday.