The real life model for the title character in “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” is one Eugene Allen, a White House staffer who served there for much of the late 20th century. Working with Danny Strong’s screenplay, director Daniels takes considerable liberties with Allen’s actual story, intent on creating an amalgam of African-American experience from the beginning of the civil rights movement up to the inauguration of President Obama. While it often movingly captures the challenges, bravery, and the heartbreak of the era, the concept keeps the movie from being extraordinary.
Too bad, because there are some excellent performances here, all of them by notable black actors. As Cecil Gaines — the name is to be taken metaphorically, I take it — Forrest Whitaker locks up a nomination for his second Best Actor Oscar. As Cecil’s wife, Gloria, Oprah Winfrey makes us forget (well, sometimes) that this is Oprah we’re watching. And Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Lenny Kravitz render solid support as Cecil’s friends and co-workers.
Indeed, the artists above are so good that they make most of the name actors in the “white” roles look like they are doing caricatures. In the scenes where Cecil interacts with Presidents from Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to Kennedy (James Marsden) to Johnson (Liev Scheiber) to Nixon (John Cusack) to Reagan (Alan Rickman), belief is momentarily not suspended. Instead, the audience can almost be heard muttering, “Oh, that’s Jane Fonda playing Nancy Reagan!”
By contrast, where Cecil is in his own modest row house, relaxing, laughing, arguing, or fighting with his friends and relations, the actors also relax into their roles and draw us into a world credible and engaging. Oprah is especially on key here: Gloria is bored, drinks too much, fools around with the neighbor (Howard), and is often angry with Cecil for being an absentee father. Likewise, Whitaker’s scenes with his disaffected older son, Lewis (David Oyelowo), establish the movie’s most effective tension, between a father and child pushed apart by the attitudes and politics of their respective generations. To his credit, Oyelowo resists making Lewis simply a type, though he goes from rebellious teen to non-violent protester to Black Panther to U.S. Representative. (Inevitably, the film has been compared to “Forrest Gump,” the principals somehow magically present at way too many major events.)
None of these complaints should detract from the really superb job Whitaker does portraying the stoic, overly accommodative butler who is admonished early on that a room should feel empty when he is in it. Cecil’s aging process is particularly well done, Whitaker (with a big boost from the makeup department) catching the halting gait and the bending back of a man who spends all day on his feet for decades. When he loses his calm demeanor momentarily, the dramatic effect is all the more telling.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is rated “PG-13”for some scenes of drinking and smoking, some sexual suggestiveness, and a tad of profanity (though the Watergate tapes alone imply how toned down the latter is). It has done excellent business since its mid-August release, especially among people of a certain age who lived through the events it depicts. It should, and I’m guessing will, be used in American history classes to acquaint young people with a crucial epoch in our country’s life, looking at it from an unusual point of view. If it falls well shy of being a great film, it is still an informative, intelligent, occasionally uplifting one.