The first images in Lee Daniels' The Butler are of an elderly black man in a White House anteroom, wearing a suit, sitting upright, flanked by a U.S. flag and a Marine - and of two black men, dead, hanging from nooses somewhere in the South.
Daniels, the audacious filmmaker behind Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire (what's with these clunky titles?), establishes his tactics from the get-go: He is going to tell us the remarkable story ("inspired by the true story") of an African American man who worked in the White House under eight administrations, serving drinks and coffee and late-night snacks to every president from Truman to Reagan.
And Daniels is going to tell us about the lynchings and rapes, the beatings and ugly indignity set upon generations of black Americans in the course of the 20th century. From the hushed halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to the confrontation on the steps of Little Rock's Central High School, from elegant state dinners to the whites-only lunch counters of Woolworth stores, history unfolds.
And Cecil Gaines, the fictionalized incarnation of real-life White House butler Eugene Allen, watched it unfolding - from the Oval Office and the first families' residence, a discreet witness to many of the milestone moments of the civil rights movement.
The transition from Cecil's childhood on a Georgia cotton farm to his days as a footman at a posh North Carolina hotel required the services of two young actors, Michael Rainey Jr. and Aml Ameen, but even so, when we first see the adult Cecil in Washington, circa 1957, Forest Whitaker looks as if he has been there all his life. The makeup artists had their work cut out for them, trying to make Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, as Cecil's hard-drinking, chain-smoking wife, Gloria, much younger, then much older, than they are. If the stars' gaits and girths, hair and complexions, aren't always convincing, the core of Whitaker's performance certainly is: The man is a burning ember of humility and pride, and the actor's soft, hulking presence and searching eyes anchor the film.
And the film, with a screenplay credited to Danny Strong, adapted from a Washington Post story by Wil Haygood, is undeniably powerful. For all its faults - and there are many, from shameless compression of events to milk the drama for all it's worth, to the gimmicky miscasting of several commanders-in-chief (Robin Williams as Eisenhower is especially egregious) - The Butler is an inspiring and important summation of the black struggle. It's a long way from the Freedom Riders of the 1960s to the election of the first African American president in 2008. Cecil Gaines, with his white gloves, his deferential bow, his "Is there anything else, Mr. President?" was a singular witness to it all. (The real-life butler, Allen, was invited to Obama's first inauguration.)
At the White House, Cuba Gooding Jr., Colman Domingo, and Lenny Kravitz play Cecil's fellow tuxedoed servants. At the Gaines home, David Oyelowo is Louis, the son who goes off to historically black Fisk University in Nashville and becomes radicalized, joining the civil rights protests and spending more time in Southern jails than in lecture halls. He finds his way into the Memphis motel room where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was staying when he was assassinated, then joins the Black Panthers - he's the Zelig of African American history. Elijah Kelley is Louis' younger brother, Charlie. And Terrence Howard, sporting a gold tooth, is the neighbor who keeps Gloria company on all those late nights when Cecil is busy at work.
The Butler incorporates archival (and faked) news footage of pivotal episodes of the era: the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, the riots in the wake of King's death. Liev Schreiber has some fun as Lyndon Johnson: barking orders from the toilet with his trousers, and his two beagles, at his feet. And the casting of Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan is priceless. (Alan Rickman is "Ronnie" and also does a good job of mimicry.)
As a filmmaker, a storyteller, Daniels has a propensity for pulp, for domestic melodrama, for characters who border on caricature. But he also has an instinct for the truth - emotional, and historical. In The Butler, he finds that truth, and it triumphs.
Lee Daniels' The Butler *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Lee Daniels. With
Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Terrence Howard. Distributed
by the Weinstein Co.
Running time: 2 hours, 12 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters