CAPSULE: This is the story of the fictional Cecil Gaines, loosely based on the career of Eugene Allen, who for 34 years was the butler for the White House, serving eight Presidents. This film is a little melodramatic, seemingly contrived and predictable, but nonetheless can deliver a strong emotional impact. One false move is to have very familiar star actors playing the Presidents. They fail to resemble the actual person, and they turn the film into a distraction of trying to recognize what familiar star is behind the makeup playing the role. The film is written by Danny Strong and directed by Lee Daniels. Daniels made the very effective PRECIOUS, but hardly has the kind of recognition to get his name above the title. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
It is 2009 when the film begins. Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker), 34 years the White House butler, is remembering his past. His mind goes back to 1926 in Macon, Georgia, when the lot of blacks in the South was barely better than it was at the end of LINCOLN. Gaines, just a boy working in the fields, sees his mother raped and minutes later his father murdered for being uppity. Murdering a black in the South then was not punished by the law.
Gaines travels north, goes hungry, steals, and waits tables at a fancy D.C. hotel bar before he is seen and hired for a job serving at the White House. The most sacred rule of his position is to have on the job no more political opinions than the furniture has. This forces him to have two faces. In the White House he is a bland functionary. At home and off the record he can express what he really thinks of the President and his politics, and this continues through a succession of Presidents. His first President is Dwight D. Eisenhower, and early on Eisenhower is faced with responding to Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus's order that the State National Guard should turn away the nine black students trying to attend Little Rock Central High School.
The film follows Gaines's career as the various Presidents face race issues. Gaines allows himself stronger opinions at home than he has at the White House, of course, but the policy he favors for blacks is still non-confrontational. His politics split his friends and family, some of whom think he should be more aggressive. Eventually there is a split of opinion, especially with his militant son Louis. Louis wants to join the political racial protests, which are more confrontational than his father wants. The elder Gaines has seen his father killed by a small incident of racial unrest and he is terrified he will lose more family to racial bigotry. Meanwhile, Gaines has to face racism in a White House that publically denounces discrimination but refuses to pay black employees the same pay as whites with the same responsibilities.
Louis eventually joins the Black Panthers. But even there is a divide. Louis favors the belief that the Black Panthers should be helping the poor. His girl friend favors the more violent wing. We see all of these differences of policy and how they shake Gaines's family.
I have a minor objection to the way the film seems to use classical music, some very beautiful, to characterize the starchy white people who look down upon and oppress the more earthy blacks. It is a mistake to have name actors partially made up to look like Presidents, but never very well. Both my wife and I saw Robin Williams as Eisenhower and immediately thought he looked more like Truman. It also is a reflex and a distraction to try to recognize the actor under the make-up. To cover 34 years of racial politics in and out of the White House in a little over two hours is ambitious, but probably also ill-conceived. The proper form for this story is probably the mini-series. At times the story hits with a strong emotional force, but occasionally falls into melodrama. I would rate LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1327773/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/lee_daniels_the_butler/
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2013 Mark R. Leeper