Loosely based on the real life of Eugene Allen, who worked in the White House for decades, the film stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, an African-American who is a witness of notable political and social events of the 20th century during his 34-year tenure serving as a White House butler. In addition to Whitaker, the film's all-star cast also features Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Nelsan Ellis, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Minka Kelly, Elijah Kelley, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams, and Clarence Williams III. It was the last film produced by Laura Ziskin, who died on June 12, 2011, and it was also the final film appearance of Clarence Williams III, who retired from acting in 2018 and died on June 4, 2021.
In 1957, Cecil is hired by the White House during Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration. White House maître d'hôtel Freddie Fallows introduces him to head butler Carter Wilson and co-worker James Holloway. Cecil witnesses Eisenhower's reluctance to use troops to enforce school desegregation, then his resolve to uphold the law by racially integrating Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.
President Barack Obama said, "I teared up thinking about not just the butlers who worked here in the White House, but an entire generation of people who were talented and skilled. But because of Jim Crow and because of discrimination, there was only so far they could go."
Particular criticism has been directed at the film's accuracy in portraying President Ronald Reagan. While Alan Rickman's performance generated positive reviews, the director and screenwriters of the film have been criticized for depicting Reagan as indifferent to civil rights and his reluctance to associate with the White House's black employees during his presidency. According to Michael Reagan, the former president's son, "The real story of the White House butler doesn't imply racism at all. It's simply Hollywood liberals wanting to believe something about my father that was never there."
Working from the true story of Eugene Allen's rise from field hand to longstanding White House butler, Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong attempt to "Forrest Gump" African-American history, from Jim Crow to Obama's election. Whitaker's Allen-modeled Cecil Gaines backs into historical moments like Forrest, but what looks like passive obliviousness is just a black man playing one of the only roles that granted him upward mobility in the 20th Century, the unquestioning servant. Gaines learns the value of silence as a boy, seeing his father shot to death for simply objecting to his cotton field overseer taking liberties with his wife (Mariah Carey). Almost every instance where Cecil feels compelled to protest is haunted by this memory. Speak up and you die.
Daniels delights in his actors, all of whom accept the challenge of bringing something true and vibrant to their various sketchily written characters with the enthusiasm of celebrity competition-show contestants: Kravitz and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Cecil's shit-talking pals on staff in the White House kitchen; Elijah Kelly as Gaines' youngest son Charlie, but really as every seemingly slow, goofy little brother whose sunburst smile conceals a restless intelligence; Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, emblazoning her brief cameo in memory with a swing of her red-skirted hips; Colman Domingo as the hilariously dapper, unflappable White House butler who trains Cecil as if he were sending him to defuse land mines.
Parents need to know that Lee Daniels' The Butler is a sweeping look at the history of African-American life in the United States, as witnessed by a black butler (Forest Whitaker) who spent three decades working in the White House. Since the movie chronicles the history of the civil rights movement, there are many scenes that portray hate crimes -- like two lynched men hanging from a tree and a black sharecropper being shot for saying one word to his white boss. White Southerners are also shown raping, killing, shooting, burning, intimidating, and otherwise terrorizing black protesters. Adults smoke cigarettes and drink; one character is an alcoholic who has a drink in most of her scenes. There's also some language (one "f--k," plus "s--t" and many racial epithets) and kissing, as well as the suggestion of an affair. Audiences will get an overview of how various presidents felt about race relations, as well as the methods and ideologies of the civil rights movement.
In LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) tells the story of his remarkable life. Born the son of cotton pickers in early 20th-century Georgia, Cecil witnesses his father's execution at the hand of his remorseless young boss and is then brought into the plantation house and taught how to be a domestic servant. He escapes Georgia for North Carolina, where a hotel butler teaches him everything he needs to know to about working for wealthy white patrons. Cecil is offered a job at a prestigious Washington, D.C., hotel and one day is unexpectedly given the opportunity to join the White House's domestic staff as a butler. As Cecil serves three decades' worth of presidents (from Eisenhower to Reagan), his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), struggles with alcoholism, and his oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), joins the civil rights movement.
There's no question that Lee Daniels' The Butler boasts an extraordinary cast, led by the marvelous Whitaker. The scenes with Whitaker and his fellow White House butlers -- played by Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. (in the best role he's had in a long, long while) -- are funny, heartbreaking, and well acted. Oyelowo proves once again that he's a star on the rise as Cecil's activist son, and Oprah looks like she's having the time of her life drinking, smoking, and dancing her way through the decades (although she never really looks older until her final scenes).
But as well-intentioned as director Lee Daniels is in showing the scope of the African-American experience via one prestigiously employed butler, the movie doesn't live up to either the content or the cast. The film, particularly in the scenes with the various presidents -- all played with enthusiasm by Robin Williams (Eisenhower), James Marsden (Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (Johnson), John Cusack (Nixon), and Alan Rickman (Reagan) -- feels like a remix of Forrest Gump: contrived scenes of a man witnessing history in the making. Even though the film was inspired by a true story, there are parts that are so overly sentimental (like a young Caroline Kennedy improbably discussing the burning of a Freedom Riders bus) and formulaic that it takes away from an otherwise powerful story of African Americans' struggle for equality.
Families can talk about American history and how it's witnessed by Cecil and his family. Even though Lee Daniels' The Butler is dedicated to those who worked in the civil rights movement, the protagonist is an apolitical butler. Why is his eyewitness account to history so compelling? 041b061a72