Dramatized versions of American history with a splash of humor always seem to make better movies than the actual events that inspired them. One only need look at two recent additions to this genre of historical manipulation: Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning “Argo” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” Both films tackle heavy American subjects by fudging the events or exaggerating reality and throwing in a joke or two. The final result is a sentimental patriotic fable that is almost always romanticized, inspiring or heartwarming.
The latest director to try his hand at one of these movies is Lee Daniels (“Precious”) in “The Butler,” released Aug. 16. The film takes a look at the plight of African Americans and their efforts during the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. With immensely mature themes and a greatly talented ensemble cast, Daniels weaves an almost successful, thought-provoking and tear-jerking story of family and race that plays out like an African-American version of “Forrest Gump” with its integration and recreation of iconic events through photos and stock footage.
Based on the true story of Eugene Allen, a black butler who served in the White House for 34 years, Danny Strong’s somewhat moving screenplay tells the story of Cecil Gaines, our narrator and a man who grows up facing terrible racism on a cotton farm in the South. After his father is shot to death by the white farm owner, Cecil is trained to be a house boy, eventually becoming the most popular butler in the White House, a job that ironically has a zero-politics policy. The adult Cecil is portrayed by Forrest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”) in a wonderful performance as a kind-hearted, cautious and sometimes wise-cracking family man watching history unfold right in front of him. Like Gump, he always happens to be in the right place at the right time, and we get a front-row seat, seeing the world through the eyes of this simple man. Cecil seems to be the only butler in the whole movie who seems to walk into important conversations that pertain to him on matters of racial activity.
Cecil serves through eight presidential terms between 1952 and 1986, with each president being played by other well-known actors — from Robin Williams as Eisenhower to Alan Rickman as Reagan — rocking prosthetic noses and all. The bits involving them have bright spots of talent, but these big-time celebrities, some who don’t even resemble their real-life counterparts, don’t get enough screen time, reducing the complex men they were portraying into mere caricatures. This perhaps goes most for Liev Schreiber’s Lyndon B. Johnson and John Cusack’s Nixon, two very controversial and disliked presidents. They reminded me of the 2006 movie “Bobby,” which really did not feature or even flesh out its title political character, Robert Kennedy.
At the end of the day, however, “The Butler” is not about presidents but about Cecil and his family. One major part of the story involves the relationship of Cecil and his wife Gloria with their son, Louis (David Oyelowo), as he becomes a radical racial activist, starting out in Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolence movement and evolving to the Black Panther shootouts with police. Oprah Winfrey makes a welcome turn as the sassy, alcoholic Gloria. Other major actors such as Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz are unfortunately reduced to comic relief roles without much development or screen time.
The main focus of the movie is the push for racial equality. The film features terribly gut-wrenching, hard-to-watch sequences of nonviolent protestors being harassed at a lunch counter or a bus full of freedom riders being set aflame. The abundance of intolerance and abuse in these scenes are up there with the scene of Jews being herded into the Krakow ghetto in “Schindler’s List.” Even John F. Kennedy’s assassination packs an emotional punch, as Cecil asks Jackie Kennedy what he can do to help. All the while, the production design team had an eye for detail, stocking the scenes with period-appropriate clothing along with televisions, footage, references and music from the respective eras.
The movie works all the way up to Obama’s first election as a sign of the well-deserved triumph for civil rights. Yet this often slow and sentimental portrait of the 20th- and 21st-century United States should not be recommended as an ironclad excuse to skip your next U.S. history class. Its main purpose is to serve as a condemnation of this country’s wrongdoings and a sign of hope for a brighter future. In the words of Forrest Gump, “And that’s all I have to say about that.”