On the surface, framing the tumultuous civil rights era around the personal drama of a black butler working inside the White House might seem hokey. Folding history lessons in an entertaining package has always proven a difficult balancing act. But Lee Daniels' The Butler stands as a testament to reserved directing, a focused script and strong character-acting for the sake of the larger picture outside the movie house.
The heart and soul of the piece resides firmly in the capable hands of Forest Whitaker who, as titular character Cecil Gaines, balances pathos, pride, and strength with a human dash of regret. The other characters all seem to pass through his life but leave bold marks on him and the film's drama. Oprah Winfrey as Ms. Gloria Gaines, Terrence Howard as the sleazy philandering neighbor who takes advantage of the lonely Gloria, and Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as fellow White House help stand out the strongest for their raw abilities to inhabit their roles.
Though you would expect such actors to hold their own, the real delight of the Butler comes from the fact that there are no shortcomings in the film's supporting roles. The dynamic between the brothers of Cecil and Gloria offers a delightful comic relief, which is peppered amongst the drama just enough to keep the struggles of those times bearable. Elijah Kelley delights as the younger, naïve, parent-pleasing Charlie, and David Oyelowo embodies ultra-righteousness as Louis, jumping at every opportunity of civil disobedience to fight for his people's human rights (from protesting Jim Crow laws in the South to joining the Black Panther party). Meanwhile, the presidents - despite being played by high profile actors like Robin Williams (Eisenhower), John Cusack (Nixon), Liev Schreiber (LBJ), Alan Rickman (Reagan), and an unforgettable Jane Fonda as Nancy - never hang around the drama long enough to distract from its main concern of a black man struggling with apathy as the times change around him.
No character ever overshadows Cecil, who encapsulates an array of issues, from escaping an oppressive life on a cotton farm as a child to arriving at a revelation stemming from a simple gesture by taking a seat at a fancy dinner in his twilight years. It's this quiet struggle of a man trying to get by in a rough and tumble world that remains the film's main concern. The 52-year-old Whitaker does a noble job as he ages from a young man to a 90-year-old.
Compared to Daniels' powerful breakout Precious (2009) and the horrible, dull mess of the Paperboy (2012), the film features a reserved sensibility thanks to the director's decision to turn down the histrionics for a change. Throughout his short filmmaking career, Daniels has always shown a keen control over camera placement to keep a film visually dynamic, despite some dramatic failings. The Butler is no exception, as Daniels' artistry appears in the film's first frame. He still, however, leans on slow motion during a few scenes for overkill emphasis. He doesn't need that. His greatest accomplishment in The Butler lies in how he keeps the other characters in check against the quiet but important struggles of Cecil. Despite the film's many stars, no one is distracted as Daniels reveals a strong sense of mise-en-scène when burying the cast's celebrity. Daniels also continues to do raw well with make-up and wardrobe dialed down to keep it real and earthy.
The script deserves singling out as the glue that makes The Butler work as neatly as it does. Written by Danny Strong, the scribe behind another brisk political drama, the acclaimed McCain-Palin exposé Game Change on HBO, it makes for an engaging, well-paced affair despite running over two hours long. Strong based his script on a Washington Post article about a black man who served as a butler to eight presidents between the '50s and '80s. In order to emphasize the history and the tension of the civil rights movement on this family who happened to have close ties to the White House, Strong took liberties with the story. He created composite characters based on other memoirs with intimate access to the White House. It's a matter of convenience to place some of these characters at three or four too many important historical moments that may seem contrived to some. However, I'd forgive the film for teetering close to Forrest Gump cartoonery for the sake of its emphasis on moments in history that can too easily be forgotten as generations pass.
After the Supreme Court's recent decision to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, The Butler serves as an important role in reminding us that equality and malaise between ethnic groups and classes still festers in this era, even after the election of the first black president. We need a movie that looks back at history and offers a reminder about the long way America has come and the long way it still has to go. That The Butler can do it while remaining entertaining is a bonus many will appreciate.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @indieethos