August 16, 2013



THE BUTLER:  Worth A Ticket – Superb Acting Elevates A History Lesson

THE BUTLER, in its form and earnestness, recalls the days of prestige TV movies and miniseries that used to be associated with the Hallmark Hall of Fame and network sweeps periods (and which now exist only as a vestige on pay-cable, mostly HBO).  Like The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, one of the most celebrated of those films since its premiere in 1974, The Butler tells the story of the American civil rights movement through the arc of a single life, with stops at almost every milestone on the road from the desegregation of Little Rock’s schools in the late 1950s to the election of Barack Obama.  In this case, the story is told through the fictionalized Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who worked as a White House butler during every presidential administration from Eisenhower through Reagan.

The movie is rescued from creakiness by the angle it takes and the streak of dramatic perversity that runs through the work of its director, Lee Daniels.  (The movie’s formal title was forced to bear Daniels’ name as a result of the much-publicized challenge launched by Warner Bros against The Weinstein Company, which was technically based on an obscure silent short released by Warners with that title, giving Warners precedential rights, but which was apparently in fact an attempt to make Harvey Weinstein give up some of his company’s claims to royalties on the Warners Hobbit sequels in a settlement.  He did not.)   Written by Danny Strong–who, thinking of HBO’s prestige movies, wrote the network’s Game Change and RecountThe Butler is far more restrained than Daniels’s Precious, The Paperboy or Shadow-Boxer, but it’s still dotted with surprises.

One of those surprises is at the movie’s center:  until very late in the game, Cecil resists every step that the civil rights movement takes.  Forged by a horrific set of events in his youth (Mariah Carey, who co-starred in Precious, appears briefly as Cecil’s mother), Cecil is taught at a very early age to serve white employers with an unobtrusiveness that approaches invisibility; his mantra is that a room should feel as though it’s empty when he’s in it.  He believes in waiting for change and not forcing it–even when he’s directly asked by a White House personage for his opinion on a race-related issue, he responds as minimally as he possibly can.  In this, he’s on a collision course with his older son Louis (David Oyelowo), who goes south during the 1960s and manages to be present at just every touchstone of the era from the lunch counters to the Freedom Buses to the assassination of Martin Luther King to the birth of the Black Panther party. Louis considers his father an “Uncle Tom” (it’s one of the only times we see Cecil overtly angry in the entire film), but Cecil is honored to be in the presence of Presidents, and he’s sympathetic to their limitations.  Cecil’s mask of passivity makes him successful at his job, but it frustrates his family, outraging his son and boring his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), who takes to drink and temptation.

Daniels is a huge fan of stunt casting, and the panoply of White House occupants gives him a field day with extended cameos.  Some of the stunts work out better than others–Liev Schreiber is a surprisingly effective LBJ, and the make-up artists did an amazing job transforming Alan Rickman into Reagan, but the only thing Nixonian about John Cusack is his fake nose.  (Robin Williams as Eisenhower and James Marsden as JFK are moderately successful.)  Strong’s script is adept at pointing out the contradictions between the public and private faces of the presidents, as LBJ uses the worst racial expletives even as he pushes the nation’s strongest civil rights legislation in history through Congress (Daniels doesn’t let the opportunity go by to recreate LBJ conducting political meetings from the toilet), while Reagan, the most personally likable of the country’s leaders–he gets Cecil a raise and Nancy (Jane Fonda!) invites him to a state dinner–supports the apartheid government of South Africa.

The Butler is strongest when it concentrates on its protagonists.  Whitaker is deeply impressive at conveying the pent-up emotions that flicker behind Cecil’s seemingly immovable features, and Winfrey, playing her first substantial role in 15 years, is remarkably strong as Gloria, never pushing too hard even when Gloria is drinking most heavily.  Cuba Gooding, Jr, Lenny Kravitz and Terence Howard make the most out of their scenes as friends of the Gaines family.

Shot on a $30M budget, quite low for such a wide-ranging costume drama, The Butler isn’t able to offer the visual pleasures that these kinds of epics can provide (although Daniels makes sure to get the maximum effect from changing fashions and hairstyles, especially when the action gets to the 1970s), so Andrew Dunn’s photography and Tim Galvin’s production design are mostly just functional.  Ultimately, there’s much that’s predictable about The Butler, particularly in the late going, where things become inspirational and sentimental.  The huge amount of territory the movie has to cover in just over 2 hours makes for inevitable sketchiness in all the characters except Cecil and Gloria.  The film succeeds as storytelling, though, anchored by its lead performances and covering territory that, while familiar, is well worth remembering.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."