Lee Daniels' The Butler is a film with such starkly contrasting positives and negatives that it almost becomes a cinematic referendum on your own outlook on life. Whether you see the proverbial glass as half-empty or half-full here might be able to define you more generally as an optimist or a pessimist. Its greatest strengths lie in its main characters, which, at least in my mind, is a pretty good place for a film to start.
Forest Whitaker stars in the titular role, Cecil Gaines, an uneducated African-American who escapes the brazen and rampant injustices of the Jim Crow-era South to become a butler at the White House. Gaines' time serving presidents -- spanning from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan -- coincides with the biggest moments in the Civil Rights Movement and mirrors the melodrama playing out in his own home.
Cecil butts heads constantly with his eldest son Lewis as he becomes more involved with the Civil Rights Movement in the South, participating in lunch counter sit-ins in Tennessee, Freedom Riding in Mississippi and Alabama, rubbing elbows with the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and members of the Black Panther Party. At first, Cecil, like any father would be, is concerned for the safety of his son. But a bigger rift opens as Lewis questions his father's profession -- servitude -- as part of a system designed to subjugate African-Americans.
If you're familiar with black history, then this sort of conflict isn't exactly groundbreaking. Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois were having this debate long before MLK and Malcolm X or the fictional Gaines family. But the philosophical differences between Cecil and Lewis, who is played David Oyelowo, will be new to many people watching this film, and while there is little nuance to the script from Danny Strong, Whitaker, Oyelowo and Oprah Winfrey, as Cecil's wife Gloria, handle the material expertly.
The further away the story ventures from the Gaines family, the more superfluous it feels to the heart of the tale. The Butler features an eye-popping ensemble cast. Here is Mariah Carey as Cecil's mother. There is Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as LBJ, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as the Reagans and so on. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz excel as fellow members of the White House staff, but just about every other noteworthy face is gratingly distracting. They're clearly meant to put the dynamics of the Gaines family in a broader historical context, but surely there must have been a subtler way to do so.
The Butler has strong elements and performances but lacks quite a bit of polish, which means it fits snugly within Lee Daniels' overall career arc. We ought to know quite well what to expect for his next feature.