An unmistakable air of Importance (yes, with a capital “I”) surrounds the new historical drama Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
Danny Strong’s screenplay tells the story of Cecil Gaines, a pseudonym for the real butler who worked in the White House from the Eisenhower administration through Reagan.
Director Lee Daniels gets considerable help to tell his story. Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker plays Gaines, aging more than 50 years in the role, and Oprah Winfrey plays Gaines’ wife, Gloria, a small role that gains importance simply through the high-voltage casting.
But Daniels saves his biggest bit of gimmick casting for the first families. The actors who portray the presidents prove odd enough choices, but Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan will surely raise pulses and eyebrows.
While telling Gaines’ story, Daniels also chronicles more than a half-century of civil rights struggles by black Americans. By doing so, Daniels turns Gaines, and later his son Louis (David Oyelowo), into unbelievable Zeligs.
The two Gaineses seem to be around when anything historical takes place. Cecil waits on President Eisenhower while Ike watches the combustible Little Rock integration on television (and try not to laugh when you see Robin Williams as Eisenhower). Later, both Kennedy (James Marsden) and Johnson (Liev Schreiber) watch civil rights demonstrations on television while Cecil hovers.
The Vietnam War and South Africa’s apartheid also provide scenery-chewing moments for Nixon (John Cusack) and Reagan (Alan Rickman), all while Cecil attends. Cecil never contributes his thoughts or attempts to change minds, but he’s there, and that is obviously meant to be important enough for a movie.
Son Louis breaks from his father yet performs his own Forest Gump imitation by attending the Birmingham marches, the Freedom Rides and lunch counter sit-ins, and being present at Martin Luther King’s assassination.
Daniels never simply presents an event. Instead, he overdramatizes. The accompanying newsreel footage proves horrible and frightening enough in the depiction of protests, but the director pushes it further with several scenes bordering on torture porn.
Daniels fills the movie’s first 10 minutes or so with a rape of young Cecil’s mother, followed by the shooting of his father, and then the after-images of a lynching.
Daniels may chronicle many of the familiar historical high spots, but he never adds much insight to go with it, even though he always has a witness on hand.