In many ways, Lee Daniels The Butler is similar to its title character, Cecil Gaines. It looks like a bland awards-bait drama, the kind of movie everyone admires but no one loves.
By LOEY LOCKERBY
Special to The Star
Similarly, Cecil makes his living by blending into the background, maintaining an air of deferential respectability. But he is a thoughtful, complicated man, and the film he anchors has similar unexpected depths.
Forest Whitaker stars as Cecil, a fictionalized version of longtime presidential butler Eugene Allen. Escaping a horrific Southern childhood, he makes his way to Washington, D.C., where his service skills land him a position in the Eisenhower White House. He stays on, through six more presidents and countless historical events, always following the advice of his first employer (Vanessa Redgrave): The room should feel empty when youre in it.
That doesnt sit well with Cecils oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who rejects his fathers belief that a black man who works hard within the status quo can ever gain equality. Louis joins the Freedom Riders and later the Black Panthers, instigating a familial rift that mirrors the countless real-world debates over when, where and how people should advocate for their rights.
Neither side gets off easy in Danny Strongs script, and the conflicts that erupt have a cringe-inducing authenticity (a kitchen-table argument about Sidney Poitier is truly something to behold).
Theres a lot more going on, as Cecil deals with the pressures of his job while worrying about the kids and his alcoholic wife (Oprah Winfrey, reminding us that shes a terrific actress).
A parade of famous faces appears as White House denizens, some more convincing than others. James Marsden and Minka Kelly are well-cast as the Kennedys, but you never forget that youre watching Robin Williams instead of Dwight Eisenhower, or John Cusack instead of Richard Nixon.
All the actors are good its just distracting to play spot the celebrity every 15 minutes. The Butler benefits greatly from Whitakers subtle, grounded performance, which seems to bring every other cast member down-to-earth, including big stars playing historical icons.
Cecil seems to be in the room for every major race-related discussion in the Oval Office, nearly matching Louis tendency to be on the front lines of the civil rights movement (hes close by during the murders of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X). There are several such convenient Forrest Gump-like coincidences, with plot developments pushing each other along like carefully arranged dominoes.
Daniels has a penchant for melodrama as well as predictability (see his Oscar-nominated Precious), and he struggles to balance this with the complexity of his subject matter.
He succeeds by looking squarely at Americas racial history, providing a provocative history lesson cloaked in the white-gloved prestige of Oscar season.