"The Butler" is an eyewitness to history account seen through the eyes of a White House employee during the presidential administrations of Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
In "The Butler" screenplay by Danny Strong (actor, "Mad Men"), the cauldron of the Civil Rights Movement is backdrop for the presidential procession as well as the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a fictional White House butler inspired by the real-life Eugene Allen, who was on the White House staff for 34 years.
The screenplay is based on "A Butler Well-Served by This Election" by Wil Haygood published in The Washington Post in 2008.
Gaines is married to Gloria, (Oprah Winfrey), who drinks hard, smokes a lot and seems oblivious to the history unfolding around her, including their eldest son Louis's (David Oyelowo) involvement in key Civil Rights Movement events, such as the March on Washington, D.C., and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech 50 years ago.
The Hall of Presidents' casting in "The Butler" doesn't always work: Robin Williams (distracting as Eisenhower), James Marsden (semi-convincing as Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (on target as LBJ), John Cusack (spooky as Nixon), and Alan Rickman (fascinating as Reagan) .
Also in supporting roles are Cuba Gooding and Lenny Kravitz as White House butlers, Mariah Carey as Gaines' mother, Vanessa Redgrave as a cotton-farmer wife, Terrence Howard as a neighbor, Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy and Jane Fonda in a remarkably believable turn as Nancy Reagan.
A supporting actress Oscar nomination and possible win is a lock for Oprah Winfrey (supporting actress nominee for "The Color Purple"). Look for additional Oscar nominations for Whitaker (actor), Gooding (supporting actor), director (Daniels) and screenplay (Strong).
"The Butler" is a by-the-book traditional Hollywood film. The power of its historical sweep, as well as its performances, especially those of Whitaker and Winfrey, carry the movie beyond its predictable storyline, pacing and direction and lift it to the realm of emotionally-moving.
There's evocative use of parallel action and cross-cutting, especially the unfolding of a Woolworths lunch counter sit-in by African-American students and the setting of the table for a state dinner at the White House. Archival footage and headlines, including that of the bombing of a Civil Rights participants' Freedom Riders bus, is used judiciously and effectively, as are songs, fashions and cars typical of the eras depicted.
It was good to see dozens of incoming Muhlenberg College students attending a screening of "The Butler" at Civic Theatre of Allentown. One of the chief delights of "The Butler" is the inspiration, knowledge and details it conveys concerning the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in the long march of history.
"The Butler" makes the case that a steadfast staffer in the White House dining room symbolically led to the first African-American president in the Oval Office. In effect, the butler did it. "The Butler" helps us to see how far we've come as a nation and how far we have to go.
"The Butler," MPAA rated PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some Material May Be Inappropriate For Children Under 13) for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking; Genre: Biography, Drama; Run time: Two hours, 8 min.; Distributed by The Weinstein Company.
Credit Readers Anonymous: "Lee Daniels' The Butler" is dedicated to producer Laura Ziskin, who died in 2011. "The Butler" was the last film she produced.
Box Office, Aug. 23: "Lee Daniels' The Butler" continued at No. 1, $17 million, $52.3 million, two weeks; with "We're The Millers" staying at No. 2, $13.5 million, $91.7 million, three weeks; holding back "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones," opening, $9.3 million, weekend; $14 million, since Aug. 21, and "The World's End," opening, $8.9 million.
5. "Planes," $8.5 million, $59.5 million, three weeks; 6 ."Elysium," $7.1 million, $69 million, three weeks; 7. "You're Next," opening, $7 million; 8. "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters," $5.2 million, $48.3 million, three weeks; 9. "Blue Jasmine," $4.3 million, $14.7 million, five weeks; 10. "Kick-Ass 2," $4.2 million,$22.4 million, two weeks
Unreel, Aug. 30:
"One Direction: This Is Us," PG: A documentary about the rise of TV's "X-Factor" winners Liam Payne, Harry Styles, Zayn Malik and Niall Horan, otherwise known as pop band sensation One Direction.
"Getaway," PG-13: The action crime drama about a kidnapped wife stars Ethan Hawke, Selena Gomez and Jon Voight.
"Closed Circuit," R: The crime thriller about an international terrorist's trial stars Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall and Jim Broadbent.
Read Paul Willistein's movie reviews at the Lehigh Valley Press web site, lehighvalleypress.com; and the Times-News web site, tnonline.com. Email Paul Willistein: firstname.lastname@example.org .
Three Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes