“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” examines the history of the American civil rights movement from the unlikely perspective of a White House butler. It’s an ambitious project that encapsulates its epic sweep inside a personal journey.
While the film doesn’t reach the heights it seeks, it doesn’t fall on its face either. The hammer-and-tongs direction by Lee Daniels can be wearyingly didactic and manipulative, but the central performances, especially by Forest Whitaker in the title role, make it a pleasure to watch, despite its harrowing subject matter and its extended running time.
The film is loosely based on reporter Wil Haygood’s book “The Butler: A Witness to History,” about longtime White House butler Eugene Allen. Danny Strong’s script veers dramatically from the nonfiction version to tell the story of Cecil Gaines, who fled the Georgia plantation where his mother was raped and his father was murdered, to build a life for himself. His chief professional skills, honed as a servant in the Jim Crow South, include tactical silence, icy courtesy and the ability to disappear into the background even as he carries out his duties.
Mr. Whitaker is masterful in depicting Cecil as a man whose sense of duty and lingering trauma lead him to haunt his home life with his own brooding detachment, to the detriment of his relationship with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo). The lines of age and wear that are etched into Cecil’s face seem to spring from Mr. Whitaker’s performance, as much as from makeup.
Miss Winfrey shines as Gloria, a hard-drinking woman who chafes under her husband’s bitterness. She’s also less convinced than Cecil that a patient, grateful attitude will help advance the cause of civil rights, and she looks to Louis, who begins in college in the 1950s to participate in nonviolent protests in the South. Cecil denounces his son’s activism, because he assumes it will only lead to a violent and pointless death.
This mid-century family drama is set against the backdrop of Cecil’s day job, serving at the White House. Cecil has a knack for walking into the Oval Office with a tray of coffee as major civil rights policies are being formulated, whether it’s President Eisenhower mulling how to enforce the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, President Kennedy responding to the violence against the Freedom Riders, or President Reagan resisting calls to isolate the South African government in the waning days of apartheid.
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The period history is handled somewhat unevenly. To my eye, Robin Williams looks absurd as Eisenhower, shown burbling over a black-and-white TV set about sending federal troops to Little Rock. John Cusack does little more to portray Nixon than dab on nose putty and add a bit of gravel to his voice. Alan Rickman appears to have put rather more thought into his portrayal of Reagan, playing the president as courteous, independent, but on some level unknowable.
The movie’s use of the 2008 election of President Obama as the fulfillment of the civil rights movement makes sense in the context of Cecil’s life, but Mr. Daniels’ heavy-handed staging has all the subtlety of a campaign commercial.
There are a few excellent set pieces that contrast Cecil’s work and Louis’ activism, such as a cross-cut between preparations for a White House state dinner and a sit-in at a Nashville lunch counter. But the most convincing parts of “The Butler” are squarely focused on Cecil struggling with the growing rifts in his family, and trying to reconcile his own identity with the invisibility his job demands.
TITLE: “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”
CREDITS: Directed by Lee Daniels, written by Danny Strong
RATING: PG-13 for profanity, sadistic violence, smoking and alcohol abuse
RUNNING TIME: 132 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS