"Everything you are and everything you have, is because of that butler."
Lee Daniels' The Butler is an ambitious film that has Oscar bait written all over of it. It may have an uneven and overlong narrative, but the impressive cast makes up for it. The film covers an extended period of time where political and racial history was being made in the United States, but it does so in a very quick and safe way. That is where some of the comparisons with Forrest Gump come in, but this film takes itself more seriously. I wasn't a fan of Lee's previous film, The Paperboy, but Precious was a solid movie. The Butler is not as good as Precious, but it's still a solid effort and an engaging film with some great performances. We get to see through the eyes of the butler how each of the historical events presented in the film affected his life and society as a whole. It can be manipulative and melodramatic at times, but the film does work and it's emotionally affecting. Many of the characters come in and out of the film so quickly that we barely have time to get to know them. The only three characters in this film that get some depth are the butler, his wife, and oldest son. That was enough to engage the audience and keep them hooked to the story despite the pacing issues.
The screenplay was written by Danny Strong inspired by an article written by Wil Haygood entitled "A Butler Well Served by This Election." The film is very loosely based on a true story, but several liberties were taken for dramatic effect. It centers on the life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) who grew up in the south as a domestic servant in the 20's. He later decides to continue his life on his own and becomes a hotel valet under the guidance of Maynard (Clarence Williams III) who teaches him everything he needs to know about becoming a servant. He does his work so well that eventually he's called to serve at the White House during the 50's. Beginning his service during President Dwight Eisenhower's (Robin Williams) term he observes the radical changes from the inside for decades serving seven more presidents in the process. His service eventually affects his family life including his relationship with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) who has a drinking problem and with his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) who becomes involved in the Civil Rights movement. The Butler allows us to experience the changes in America during the 20th century through his eyes and the effect it had on his family.
Despite being manipulative and playing it pretty safe, what The Butler does best is focusing on the duality of its main character and the inner struggle he must face. That is the key element in this film and what works best because there are several flaws with the pacing considering its ambition to cover such an extensive period of time. Cecil learns at a very young age that he must remain invisible and thus learns how to control his emotions and keep to himself. That is why he becomes such an efficient servant, but on the inside he struggles with the injustice despite remaining passive. His son, is the opposite, and that is where the duality is expressed as he represents everything his father isn't. The Butler works best when it centers around this conflict between father and son, and the conflict between the two differing ideologies. It was interesting to see this dynamic in play and it worked much better than the extensive and broad biopic that it was trying to be. The impressive cast also lifts this film and makes it seem much better than it really is. David Oyelowo is probably the best here, although Whitaker is receiving a lot of credit for his restrained performance as well. It was good to see him sharing a short scene with Robin Williams (since I was a huge fan of their 80's film Good Morning Vietnam, it had a nostalgic effect on me). The Butler isn't a groundbreaking film and as a period film it doesn't impress much, but it gets credit for trying to explore the duality in The Butler and his relationships.