Eugene Allen (1919-2010) served eight presidents during his career in the White House where he rose from the position of Pantry Man to Head Butler by the time he retired in 1986. In that capacity, the African American son of a sharecropper was privileged to be an eyewitness to history, since his tenure coincided with the implementation of most of the landmark legislation that dismantled the Jim Crow system of racial segregation.
Directed by two time Oscar nominee Lee Daniels, The Butler is a father-son biopic relating events in Allen’s life as they unfolded against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement. This fictionalized account features Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker in the title role as Cecil Gaines, and a supporting cast of Oscar winners Cuba Gooding, Jr., Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Robin Williams, and Melissa Leo, as well as Oscar nominees Terrence Howard and Oprah Winfrey.
The movie begins in a plantation in the deep south, where Cecil witnesses his father’s (David Banner) murder in a cotton field for protesting his mother’s (Mariah Carey) rape by an overseer. Because the perpetrator was never brought to justice, the youngster gets the message at an early age that “Any white man could kill us at any time and not be punished for it.”
Therefore, to avoid the same fate as his father, in his teens, he skips town and settles in Washington, D.C. where he lands steady work as a bartender in a hotel that caters to an upscale clientele. There he also meets Gloria (Winfrey), the maid whom he marries, and starts a family.
Cecil’s reputation as a polite and deferential black man leads to a position in the White House, where he is hired on the express understanding that “You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve.” Although he maintains an apolitical façade on the job, the same can’t be said for his home life, where current events are freely debated.
As a result, Cecil finds himself increasingly at odds with his elder son, Louis (David Oyelowo), a civil rights activist who participates in voter registration marches, sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, and freedom bus rides. The simmering tension between the two builds over the years to the boiling point when Louis derisively refers to his father an Uncle Tom.
At that point, Cecil’s wife slaps her son and then delivers the moving line that is likely to earn Oprah Winfrey another Academy Award nomination: “Everything you have, and everything you are, is because of that butler.” However, Forest Whitaker is even more deserving of accolades, thanks to his nonpareil performance as a humble provider who is understandably reluctant to rock the boat.
Kudos to Lee Daniels for crafting a gut-wrenching tour de force that never hits a false note and chronicles critical moments in the African American fight for equality.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence, sexuality, smoking, profanity, ethnic slurs, disturbing images, and mature themes. Running time: 132 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.