Based on Miami alum Will Haygood’s article, “A Butler Well Served By This Election,” Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” boasts a star-filled cast and an inspiring story that is bound to be seen again at the Oscars in February.
The film chronicles the life of Cecil Gaines, a butler who served in the White House for eight presidential administrations that encompassed the civil rights movement.
The acting, on all accounts, is spot on from the lead characters to those with roles so minor they only get seconds of screen time. Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey shine as Cecil and Gloria Gaines, bringing to life both the hardships and love of this rock-solid relationship.
A delightful and sometimes amusing cast of Hollywood’s finest portrays five presidential administrations. From Robin Williams, John Cusack and Live Schreiber, to Jane Fonda, Alan Rickman and Vanessa Redgrave, all are aged to perfection with superb costuming and makeup.
The film moves at a steady pace, one that does not make the final running time of just over two hours feel long at all. With Whitaker’s smooth, grandfatherly voice as narration, the story is told in fragments and short scenes from the Gaines family’s life. These snippets of memory are the gems, the heart and soul of the film. Through them, we see Cecil’s interactions with presidents and their families as the White House methodically ushers them in and out. Figureheads from history that oftentimes do not seem like normal people are displayed with complexities and details that make them come alive. We see Eisenhower (Williams) painting for relaxation, Johnson (Schreiber) cozying up with his dogs late at night and Cecil’s gentle kindness as he assures a young Caroline Kennedy that her doll is not broken.
With such a large cast to cover the many aspects of the story and the civil rights movement, some critics have said the film lacks a consistent point of view, yet I disagree. Cecil Gaines is the constant in a movie who depicts the reality of a rapidly changing world. Society changes dramatically, presidents and their families are cycled through the White House and his own children quickly grow up before his eyes, yet Cecil remains a steadfast fixture essential in the lives he touches, as well as the film depicting him. Cecil learns to serve in silence, to blend into the background of a crowded room. He is told, “you hear nothing; you see nothing; you only serve.”
The Butler’s consistent point of view is Cecil’s and, through it, the viewer experiences the movie in much the same way Cecil experiences his life: as an outsider who must contend with simply watching history pass before our eyes. This is not a fault as some critics are calling it, but is, instead, an accomplishment of the narrative. The true beauty of “The Butler” is in the unassuming way it tells the story of a single man who witnessed history being made from the inside.