Director Lee Daniels, who gave us 2009′s critically-acclaimed and Oscar-nominated film “Precious,” now gives us Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” a movie based on the true story of an African-American butler who served eight presidents in the White House.
In this story, however, Forest Whitaker’s Cecil Gaines serves seven presidents. That’s a front-row seat as the seven most powerful white men in the world navigate the complexities of race relations and civil rights.
It’s a fascinating dichotomy. As the movie unfolds, Cecil experiences the worst of legalized racism. As a child on a plantation, Cecil watched his parents get brutalized. While carrying that pain, we witness Cecil navigate life by keeping his head down, working hard and speaking when spoken to while trying to do right by his family. As Cecil, Whitaker’s eyes and face embody all of these truths – standing in the Oval Office as presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan struggle with race-related issues, from the U.S. civil rights movement to apartheid in South Africa.
Daniels lines up some heavy hitters to play the presidents. We get Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan and, perhaps the most impressive performance, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy.
Oprah Winfrey plays Gloria, Cecil’s attention-starved wife. In case you forgot – after all, it’s been 15 years since she last appeared in a live-action film as someone other than herself – Oprah can, indeed, act. Let’s also not forget that she was nominated for an Oscar in 1986 for her work in “The Color Purple,” and it certainly doesn’t hurt this film that that the majority of her scenes are with fellow Oscar-nominee Terrence Howard and Oscar-winner Whitaker.
While we see the civil rights movement through the lens of the White House, the brutality and humanity of it all is brought to life through Cecil’s son, Louis, played by David Oyelowo, who is always a treat to watch. Louis becomes a Freedom Rider and then a Black Panther. His choices do not sit well with Cecil, who has worked hard to give his son a decent life and the ability to go to college. He’s dumbfounded when Louis decides to attend a university down South, at the time a hotbed of racist activity.
Daniels renders moments of the civil rights movement in ways we haven’t seen before. You’re sitting at a lunch counter with black students while white patrons shower them with racial epithets and food. In a stirring and educational scene, you’re with the Freedom Riders when they rehearse the various scenarios of aggression and violence they may encounter while practicing non-violent civil disobedience. Daniels gets excellent performances from all of his actors, including the relatively inexperienced Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey. Cuba Gooding Jr. – let’s not forget, also an Oscar-winner for 1996′s “Jerry Maguire” – is perfect as Cecil’s fellow butler and voice of reason, Carter.
Even though it’s long, Daniels’ “The Butler” is timeless, an evocative epic that should be required viewing for generations to come.
Four-and-a-half out of five stars.