Sometimes uneven but always sincere, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is a dramatic history of civil rights as seen through the eyes of a White House butler who served several presidential administrations.
Loosely based on the real-life Eugene Allen, who worked in domestic service for various presidents beginning with Truman and ending with Reagan, the movie is a showcase for the talent of Forest Whitaker, who very well could earn an Oscar nomination for his role of Cecil Gaines.
Cecil first is shown as a child on a plantation, where his father is shot and killed by a member of the family in charge. “Any white man could kill any of us at any time, and not be punished for it,” Cecil says in his narration. After he loses his father, Cecil transitions from the cotton fields to the mansion, where he learns to make a room seem empty — even when he’s in it.
Later Cecil works in a lavish hotel, and from there is invited to work at The White House. He is nervous when he first meets President Truman (Robin Williams), then becomes accustomed to each First Family for whom he works as the years go by.
Cecil provides the point of view for the history that we see unfold, not just as a butler but also as a husband and father. His sons play a part in history as well, with the development of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Despite his presence before heads of state, Cecil does everything he can to remain positive about his position and his country, even though the nation sometimes literally ignites all around him.
Oprah Winfrey gives a wonderful performance as Gloria, Cecil’s lonely, hard-drinking wife who becomes resentful of her husband’s role at the White House and the way it makes her feel excluded.
Director Lee Daniels’ “Precious” isn’t an easy movie to watch, and neither is his “Butler.” Some of the images, including two lynched bodies at the beginning of the movie, as well as actual newscast footage of civil unrest and violence, are cringeworthy.
Whitaker owns this film. He always gives his character grace and dignity, even when other condescend or mock Cecil. He listens to politicians debate how the explosive issue of civil rights while simultaneously asking unsuccessfully that the African-American employees receive pay equal to the white employees in the White House.
“The Butler” provides dual service as a character study and a history lesson. You are likely to remember both for a long, long time.