Movie: "Lee Daniels' The Butler" (2013)

ButlerCecil Gaines served eight presidents during his time as a butler in the White House.  He’s a fascinating character in many ways, played by Forest Whitaker.  But this is really two stories running in parallel: the rather conservative Cecil in his home with his alcoholic wife (Oprah Winfrey) and his two sons, and the life of the White House from Dwight D. Eisenhower forward.

Cecil’s eldest son, Louis, becomes a freedom rider and eventually a Black Panther, although he quits the Panthers in disgust when they plan overtly violent action.  His younger son, Earl, enlists in the Army and is killed in Vietnam.  Meanwhile, their father serves Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, James Marsden as John Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lindon Johnson, Alan Rickman (aka Snape, appropriately enough) as Ronald Reagan, and Jane Fonda (ironically) as Nancy Reagan.

One problem I had was that none of the actors playing presidents looked all that much like the real presidents we know from entirely too much TV.  Nor did the actor who played Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Ellis, look like MLK during the period he was apparently portraying.  Adding to the confusion, some of these actors show up on TV screens in the movie which also makes use of historical news footage of the real people.  We see Warren Burger, Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn Carter, Walter Cronkite, Gerald Ford, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mike Wallace, and eventually Barack Obama.

Still, it’s a good movie that gets deeply involved with the civil rights movement and tells an interesting story that is all the more fascinating by seeming to be a whirlwind that centers on a quiet, dignified, competent, responsible servant.  Just exactly what white people have always thought black people should be.

Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.