History buffs or not, viewers will find appreciable entertainment value in Lee Daniels' The Butler, which includes a gifted cast, an enjoyable screenplay and a lot of emotion. Released on Aug. 16, The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines, a man who grows up in servitude of an affluent Southern white family and eventually works his way up to the position of a butler in the White House.
While Gaines' personal life is a significant part of the film, the audience still goes through known events of United States history. From Eisenhower portrayed by a bald Robin Williams to Ronald Reagan played by Alan Rickman, viewers travel with The Butler for an inside look at the civil rights movement, U.S. involvement in Vietnam and many social developments of the era.
Apart from just being a summary of the last 60 years, Daniels' directing also takes a stab at a pressing question of the times: Was it better for blacks to work their way up by catering to the white world, or did the unjust segregation call for war?
Daniels brilliantly raises this query with the personification of each side; Gaines is the image of the black man earning liberation and respect through subordination, and his son is the outraged civil rights protestor, first a Freedom Rider and then a Black Panther Party member − I hope your high school history isn't already failing you.
When we boil it down, the film's central question is this: Who was right, Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X? That's up to the audience to decide, but the screenplay excels at blending the philosophies and showing the importance of both men.
Though I'm one to pensively rest my chin on my fist when seated in history class, I still fell asleep twice during Lincoln, Steven Spielberg's recent biographical film. I was ashamed of this ignorant drowsiness until I saw The Butler, which confirmed for me that maybe my attention span can outlast that of a squirrel. For, throughout its two-hour-long runtime, the movie captivates the audience entirely.
Maybe this is due to The Butler's knockout cast, which includes Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and even Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. It's a remarkably positive feeling to be reminded that Oprah is more than a TV personality and always amusing to see the figures in our history textbooks portrayed by modern actors.
Though much of the history is not dealt with in depth, the audience feels refreshed by a highly emotional and personal look into those uncertain times, which left a lot to be desired by those who experienced them anyway.
The film's somewhat shallow treatment of parts of history, however, can work to its advantage. Daniels' directing lets the audience fill in those gaps and periodically requires them to infer. I found this style fortifying - almost like a game. The Butler will lead you through a journey, but you need to do your part in connecting the pieces.