Oscar-Worthy Performance by Whitaker
The first scene in Lee Daniels’ The Butler starts off with an emotional wallop. Cecil Gaines, a Black man, sits in a chair in the White House waiting for an interview. His mind drifts back to 1926 when a horrible event happened on a Southern cotton plantation where Cecil (Michael Rainey Jr.) was a young boy helping his dad (David Banner) and mom (Mariah Carey) pick cotton.
Now it’s 1957 and Cecil (Forest Whitaker) is a grown man, married and with two boys. He eventually landed a job at a hotel where a White House employee (Clarence Williams III) discovered him, which led to Cecil becoming a butler in the White House.
It’s an interesting time -- an era of civil unrest -- for the mostly black White House staff. Segregation of Southern Blacks has reached a fever pitch, and groups like the Black Panthers and Freedom Riders are creating riots.
At work, Cecil is always a quiet servant obeying the first lesson he learned from his supervisor Freddie (Colman Domingo) -- who warned him, “There is no room for politics in the White House, and you hear nothing, you see nothing.’’
At home, Cecil is not much different. He’s always tired, and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is lonely and not impressed with his job. She manages to raise their two boys, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelly). But then her absence from the party life and lack of attention from her husband results in an affair with a neighbor (Terrence Howard). She also becomes friends with a bottle of booze.
Presidents come and presidents go while Cecil works his way up the ladder. He learned well from the prior head butler (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his second-in-command (Lenny Kravitz). By now Louis is ready for college. Although mom and dad want him to go somewhere close by, he’s appalled at the treatment of the blacks and wants to go down south where he’s with his own people. When Louis gets involved with the Freedom Riders and the Panthers, he creates horror for his mom and a never-ending worry for Cecil.
Whitaker gives a tour-de-force performance as the butler and is sure to get attention come Oscar time. As Cecil, he emits nerves of steel, yet with moistened eyes when he must carry a tray of coffee or tea into a room of white politicians who openly discuss their disgust of the blacks as if he’s a lampshade in the room. Whitaker also convinces us his character believes he has no options on the home front. He understands his wife is unhappy with him -- but knows he must keep his position.
When their young son joins the service to fight in Vietnam, it adds another solid wall between Cecil and Gloria. Winfrey plays her part well enough, yet I couldn’t stop seeing Oprah every time Gloria was in the scene.
The seven presidents Cecil serves are portrayed by several actors. Robin Williams turns in an amusing turn as Dwight D. Eisenhower; John Cusack is Richard Nixon; Alan Rickman portrays Ronald Reagan (Jane Fonda his wife Nancy); James Marsden plays John F. Kennedy; Liev Schreiber is Lyndon B. Johnson; and Orlando Eric Street plays Obama. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are skipped over in the film.
Most of the casting works with some characters adding a much needed lightness to the heavy subject of racism that’s hard to watch. In addition to Whitaker’s superb performance, Oyelowo (Lincoln, The Help) is exceptional as Louis. He must buck his dad’s status and ignore how far he’s come from working in the cotton fields as a slave to a prestigious job serving the country’s leaders. Louis is a die-hard warrior fighting for what he feels is right at any cost, and the price for himself and his family is high.
Adapted from Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” The Butler is based on the real butler Eugene Allen who served seven years in the White House. Lee Daniels’(Precious) film not only reminds us of a troubled and unforgivable past history involving more wrongs than rights, but also that there are still some terrific actors in Hollywood.
(Released by The Weinstein Company and rated “PG-13” for violence, disturbing images, profanity, sexuality.)
Review also posted at www.reviewexpress.com.