Lee Daniels' The Butler (that title the result of a copyright dispute) is an ambitious historical epic that wants to take you through the span of an entire life and the history of the civil rights movement in America, from the 1950's through the 1980's. While those ambitions can be easily worn down by the sheer scope of encompassing all of these events, the small and intimate life of Cecil Gaines as the White House butler, with the performance of Forest Whitaker in the title role, keeps the movie on level ground. You never lose sight of him as this character, and his innate dignity shines at every turn.
The story of Cecil Gaines was inspired by the life of White House butler Eugene Allen, who served through seven administrations, and the movie version of The Butler wants to use that life to document the mass change in race relations that took place in the country during Cecil's quiet tenure, through term after term. It's a fascinating look at the White House through fresh eyes, as we've seen many movies about these presidencies, but have never been given this enlightened look at the power of the highest office in the land through the eyes of the help. Cecil is born on a cotton farm, and as a young boy when his mother is raped and his father shot right before his eyes, the old woman in charge of the house (Vanessa Redgrave) feels guilty enough to take him in and train him as a house servant. She gives him the piece of advice he will live by for the rest of his professional life: "The room should feel empty when you're in it."
When Cecil leaves the farm, he trains as a butler under a mentor (Clarence Williams II), learns how to perfect his craft in a white man's world, and how to have "two faces," one his own, and the one that "they" want to see. His excels at his job in a fancy hotel in D.C. and is one day picked out by a man who happens to be in charge of the household staff at the White House, for his restraint and refusal to offer a political opinion that would be displeasing to the white men discussing the integration of schools. Cecil is then employed at the White House during the Eisenhower years and goes on to watch as history unfolds around and outside him. There is a contrast drawn between Cecil's dutiful submissiveness and his own son Louis's burgeoning activism, and it is Louis (David Oyelowo) who goes off to take part in nearly every significant event of the civil rights movement, including sit-ins, the Freedom Riders, the Black Panthers, to even being in the room when Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated. The transitions between these historical events is the weakest part of the film, bogging down the middle sections and edging at times close to a pop-up book version of history- but the acting is so strong that it tends to carry the film through any structural awkwardness.
Oprah Winfrey is Cecil's wife Gloria, and it's her who provides the humor of the film, as she spends a lot of time in a drunken haze, but never veers toward campiness, and there's a great emotional subtlety in the lifelong connection between Cecil and Gloria, despite her falling into a tryst with a boozy neighbor played by Terence Howard. Even Oyelowo manages to make his character feel real- in spite of essentially being written as a symbol for 60's activism and civil rights workers, he projects a sincere authority and a strong screen presence. The presidential cameos, which seem silly at first glance (my theater chuckled at Robin Williams' first appearance as Eisenhower), actually worked overall, as none of them are on screen long enough to make a heavy impression on the story and simply serve as our way of seeing how events are changing the policies (if not the personal attitudes) of each successive administration, while Cecil stands silently by in the background, hearing and seeing it happen. My favorites were John Cusack, who gives us a surprisingly shrewd and subtle Nixon, and James Marsden as Kennedy, who's normally very easy to caricature, played here with genuine, angst-ridden sensitivity.
But the movie belongs to Whitaker, who infuses every scene with an internal dignity that's just impossible to put out, and he makes a character who would at first seem hard to particularize, due to his innate conservative nature, into an overwhelmingly moving and sympathetic figure whose life we want to immerse ourselves in. Indeed, the film works best when it's exploring the quiet, specific interactions between Cecil and Gloria, or Cecil and the various other butlers, offering us the example of his life as the generation prior to the civil rights movement, whose worldview persisted in the face of massive social upheaval. Eventually, his own heart is changed many years after the civil rights protests, in a heartbreaking scene when he realizes the courage his son has displayed to move the nation in the right direction.
I'm not sure what the Oscar prospects are for this (it's early yet), but as of this moment I would expect nominations for Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey at least, and depending on the public's reaction to the film at the box office, perhaps a Best Picture nomination as well. One of the things that is unreservedly praiseworthy and fresh about it is that it's a story about race relations and civil rights told from black, rather than white character's perspectives, the latter of which is something that has affected movies, even good ones, for so many years that this point of view sticks out like a sore thumb. And this approach, along with the acting, is worthy enough to overcome any awkward plodding through the history of the twentieth century to make The Butler into an incredibly moving and satisfying film that is well worth seeing by audiences everywhere. Especially now, in our wonderful and flawed country, as we continue to play this history out with every passing decade, every messy setback and every progression, it's worth taking a moment to remember the generations that got us here in the first place.
* * 1/2