Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Director Lee Daniels takes inspiration from the true story of African-American Eugene Allen, a White House employee who served eight presidents from 1952 until 1986, working his way up from the pantry to the position of maitre d'.
Similarly, the main character of Danny Strong's screenplay, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), starts his tenure during the Eisenhower administration (Robin Williams plays Eisenhower) and witnesses more than thirty years' worth of American history, much of it having to do with the progress of racial minorities.
The story is almost Forrest Gump-like, in that Gaines keeps overhearing closed-door conversations about legal questions and social upheavals around race, and he has some of those conversations himself with various presidents, including John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman).
Meantime, at home, Gaines' own family is rent by his wife's discontent (Oprah Winfrey takes to movies once again like a fish to water) and his elder son's (David Oyelowo) involvement with the Freedom Riders and the Black Panthers. The movie feels utterly schematic and contrived, but that doesn't detract from its overall emotional power: Many scenes carry a dynamic emotional charge, thanks to some outstanding performances, meticulous production design and Daniels' own smart direction.
The special features on the Blu-ray/DVD release include the featurette "Lee Daniels' 'The Butler:' An American Story," a documentary of "The Original Freedom Riders" that mixes archival footage with contemporary interviews with participants in the iconic civil rights effort, a wealth of deleted scenes (including several that fill out the young Cecil's journey away from his life on a plantation, as well as gripping scenes about the Cuban Missile Crisis), a gag reel, and a music video by Gladys Knight and film co-star Lenny Kravitz.
This feel-good film isn't a stickler to the real butler's true life story, but it does serve as a primer on the events and social conflicts of one of our nation's most difficult and complex passages. In that way, art trumps history -- and becomes history of a truer sort.
Blu-ray / DVD combo