Oprah Winfrey’s The Butler … oops, I mean Lee Daniel s’ The Butler broke through the August box office doldrums with a $25 box office gross. As the title character, Forest Whitaker leads an ensemble cast with offbeat casting, most notably Robin Williams as President Eisenhower, John Cusack as President Nixon and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. There are moments of domestic struggles mixed with family tension of the times. The matinee screening was well-received and people applauded at the end of the film, so expect some Oscar buzz. As a sharecropper’s son working in the cotton fields of Georgia, Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) witnesses the rape of his mother and the murder of his father by a white trash overseer. The plantation owner (Vanessa Redgrave) sympathizes with the boy and trains him to be a house servant. By paying attention to detail, Gaines grows up, leaves the plantation and eventually gets hired by the White House during the Eisenhower Administration. Gaines serves seven presidents, and, during this time, he raises two boys; the oldest becomes a community organizer with the Black Panthersand the youngest goes to Vietnam. His wife, Gloria (Oprah), has issues with sex, drugs and soul music. While being honored by President Reagan (Alan Rickman), Gaines has a crisis of identity and questions his whole life. Gaines retires from his job and eventually votes for Barack Obama.
While being advertised as a slice of history, this film is actually a fictional piece of rhetoric. Some moments are historical fact, while many fictional elements are created for artistic license … or, dare we say, political propaganda? There is enough information on the Internet to research the balance between fantasy and reality regarding this motion picture. Yet, as one learns in English composition classes, the final words spoken often reveal the author’s perspective.
While 15 minutes too long for its own good, The Butler is an entertaining movie. Oprah is likely to be Oscar nominated again. She and Whitaker share true chemistry. The celebrity/presidential cameos are an actor’s dream and the soundtrack is an effective toe tapper. Yet, the film feels like a manufactured Oscar contender.