Faith & Film: The Butler

There’s been a tremendous amount of buzz about “The Butler,” the new movie chronicling the story of Cecil Gaines, White House butler to seven presidents from the 1950s to 1980s. The buzz has centered on everything from media superstar Oprah Winfrey’s first movie role in years to the actors cast to play the presidents and first ladies (Robin Williams as Eisenhower? Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan?) Even the title has been in the news. The movie is officially called “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” since a long-forgotten movie called “The Butler” owns the rights on the title.

Now the movie is out and, at least in its first week, the buzz has gotten stronger; the movie is a hit with audiences. The movie is worth seeing for the excellent performances of Forest Whitaker as Cecil, and, yes, Oprah herself as Cecil’s wife, Gloria. The movie is overly long, with so many different characters (including presidents!) that it loses its focus.

Cecil, raised on a Southern plantation, moves to Washington as a young man in the 1950s and begins working as a waiter in a hotel. He learns his craft well. As a servant, he learns that he must anticipate the needs of those he serves, and he must be unobtrusive. As Cecil understands, when he is in a room as a butler, the room must seem even emptier than when he is absent. Cecil learns that he is expected to be apolitical, never offering any political opinion. Even when asked, he learns to agree with whatever the person he is serving says.

In 1957, Cecil is offered a job as butler in the White House during the Eisenhower administration. He serves very well. The long hours begin to take a toll on his family. Gloria turns to alcohol. Cecil has little time to spend with his two sons. He frequently clashes with his older son, Louis (David Oyelowo) who goes away to college and becomes active in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Cecil is so used to swallowing his emotions serving at the White House that he cannot tolerate Louis’ challenging of Jim Crow in the South. One of the best scenes in the movie is a well-edited sequence contrasting Cecil setting the table for a state dinner in the White House with Louis and others receiving tremendous abuse at a sit-in at a Nashville lunch counter.

The celebrity casting of the presidents and first ladies eventually works against the movie. I spent more time trying to identify the actor playing Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) than attending to the story at that point in history. Of all the actors playing presidents, Liev Schreiber as the larger-than-life LBJ comes across best. The filmmakers also spend an inordinate amount of time on the story of Louis, moving from the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Panthers, that it takes away from Cecil and Gloria’s story.

The movie ends with Cecil’s excitement and pride at the election of Barak Obama. Cecil is proud to be invited back to the White House to be honored.

It’s still early in the year, but I would expect Whitaker and Winfrey to receive deserved Oscar nominations as Cecil and Gloria. Even though the movie is uneven, it’s still fascinating to see the sweep of so much history over the second half of the 20th century, especially the Civil Rights Movement, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this week. Also poignant is its brief treatment of the Kennedy assassination. One of the most touching moments in the movie shows Jacqueline in her famous blood-stained pink suit sitting alone weeping as Cecil looks on from a distance.

Tom Condon, OP