In November 2008, an octogenarian African American named Eugene Allen--a White House butler through eight presidential administrations--witnessed Barack Obama's election in joyful disbelief and became the subject of a poignant Washington Post story. A version of his life, shifted into dramatic overdrive, is told in director Lee Daniels' The Butler, a saga of 20th century civil rights as seen through the professional and domestic struggles of the fictionalized butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker, never better), whose job was to be invisible in one of the most visible places in the world. Wildly operatic and occasionally too obvious, The Butler is nonetheless, like Roots, an essential and deeply moving filmic rendering of African-American history.
Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong have spun their story into a 20th century epic, opening in 1926 with young Cecil witnessing first his mother led from a cotton field to be raped by the landowner and then his mildly protesting father shot dead. The lady of the manor (Vanessa Redgrave) decides, perhaps in a fit of sympathy, to train Cecil as a "house n-----," a phrasing echoed during his job interview at the White House in 1957. As an adult, Cecil is the 1950s "good Negro" juxtaposed against the older of his two sons, Louis (the marvelous David Oyelowo), the "angry black man" who comes of age as a Freedom Rider in the '60s.
As in his earlier movies Precious and The Paperboy, Daniels places extreme emphasis on palette to establish mood. The movie burns in hues of red and amber, a nod to James Baldwin, author of The Fire Next Time, and those fires that raged--often literally--in American race relations. Oprah Winfrey, who plays Cecil's alcoholic wife Gloria, wears mostly coral, deep reds and pinks and makes you forget she's Oprah as she smokes and smolders her way through the role of a woman caught between her husband's and son's warring views on opportunity, equality and respect for authority.
The ugly images are myriad: two lynched men hang, Bruegelian, from a rope; chaos reigns on the Freedom Riders' bus as Klansmen attack. Yet there are moments of levity. "Since when did he start calling us Negroes?" head butler Carter (Cuba Gooding Jr.) murmurs as he watches Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber), a regular user of the N word, speak in favor of civil rights on TV.
But Daniels falters in his stunt casting of the Presidents and First Ladies. As the famous faces parade through, from Robin Williams' Dwight Eisenhower to John Cusack's mortifying Richard Nixon, it begins to appear as if they were all hosting SNL and obliged to do a presidential imitation. That said, Jane Fonda's Nancy Reagan? More, please.
Daniels counters nearly every scene at the White House with one from the civil rights movement--the elegance of a state dinner contrasting with the savagery at a lunch counter; Cecil reading Madeline to Caroline Kennedy while the bad hats of the Klan gather in Alabama. It's as subtle as hammer to nail but effective. Those who dislike The Butler will accuse it of using both Cecil and Louis Gaines as Zelig-like props, placing them too obviously in harm's way on the railroad ties of time, from Selma to Vietnam. They'd be right, but plenty of real people were caught on those tracks, and The Butler's undeniable force stems from putting its characters--and us--there too.