Donna and I watched Lee Daniels' The Butler earlier this week. From the get go, let me say that the movie is a good one; however, I was a bit disappointed.
The movie is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, who was a butler in the White House from 1952 to 1986, a span of 34 years. The movie follows the life of Cecil Gaines (the Eugene Allen character, who was actually born in Virginia) from his boyhood in the Carolina cotton fields until 2009, shortly before his death.
From what I had heard of the movie prior to watching it, I was expecting more of a glimpse into the lives of the presidents and the many pressing issues they dealt with. I was hoping to be taken on a journey through my life, much as I was when I watched Forest Gump, a movie which was a journey that touched on Elvis, the Viet Nam War, John Lennon, and numerous other events and people that have been a part of my life.
Instead, the movie focused almost exclusively on civil rights. There is a moment with Nixon when that embattled President is struggling with the idea of resigning following the Watergate scandal. Other than that, though, almost all of the scenes involving the various presidents focus on their handling of the racial problems that confronted their administrations.
This is not to say that I did not enjoy the movie -- I did enjoy it. And it showed in depth the struggles of the Freedom Riders as they encountered resistance throughout the South of the 1960s. I just wanted a broader view of the White House behind close doors.
There are some fine performances in the movie, and I expect it will receive several Academy Award nods. I was particularly impressed by the performance of David Oyelowo, who portrays Louis Gaines, the elder of Cecil Gaines' sons. Cuba Gooding also has a strong supporting performance as a colleague of Cecil Gaines in the White House. I'm sure most people will find Oprah Winfrey's performance to be entertaining, simply because it is Oprah. She is cast as the wife of Cecil Gaines, and her character shows great development throughout the movie.
Of course, Forest Whitaker in the central role provides a strong performance. I've always liked Whitaker, a native of Longview, Texas. While most people probably cite his performance in movies such as The Last King of Scotland and even Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I've always preferred his more thoughtful characters, those who show that slight pause, that slight hesitation, that ability to consider all possibilities. These characters show up in Phenomenon, Good Morning, Vietnam, and even The Panic Room.