By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — “You hear nothing, you see nothing. You only serve.”
That’s what Cecil Gaines is told when he gets his first kitchen job in the White House, where he will work as a butler for the next three decades, for seven American presidents, from Eisenhower through Reagan.
The Butler is an ambitious historical drama, a multi-generational melodrama set against the urgent backdrop of the civil rights movement.
It’s based on the true story of Eugene Allen, an African-American who witnesses (and participates in) American history up close and personal (à la Forrest Gump, an obvious influence) for more than 30 years while working as a White House butler.
Forest Whitaker stars as Gaines, a fictional creation based on Allen, who is offered a job in the White House and ends up staying there for most of the rest of his life.
Oprah Winfrey plays Cecil’s wife, Gloria, who over the years has much too much time on her hands while her husband is tending to duties in the White House.
David Oyelowo is their civil-rights activist son, Louis, who conflicts with his father when he becomes a Freedom Rider and then a Black Panther. And Elijah Kelly is their son Charlie, who goes off to fight in the Vietnam War.
Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz play fellow butlers, while Terrence Howard plays a troublesome family friend.
The supporting cast portraying White House historical figures includes Robin Williams as president Dwight Eisenhower, James Marsden and Minka Kelly as president John Kennedy and first lady Jackie Kennedy, John Cusack as president Richard Nixon, Liev Schreiber as president Lyndon Johnson, and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as president Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan.
Director Lee Daniels, whose directorial résumé both shines (Precious) and creaks (The Paperboy), is at the top of his game, engaging us from first frame to last, and in a fashion that is far more restrained than is his norm.
This is a soundly made film, downright old-fashioned in its narrative confidence and technical simplicity, unerring in its period detail and behavior.
Because the screenplay by Danny Strong (loosely adapted from the 2008 Washington Post article by Wil Haygood, “A Butler Well Served by this Election,” which appeared just a few days after the first election of President Obama) zips through the time periods and covers so many events, of necessity skimming the surface, it must move along briskly, which it does. So a certain level of superficiality is the price paid for the amount of civil-rights ground covered.
But the film is terrifically economical in brief scenes that somehow provide context as well as exposition.
Whitaker, the Oscar winner as best actor for 2006’s The Last King of Scotland, gives another great performance as the trying-to-be-invisible Gaines, showing us his understandable bitterness and frustration with minimalist brilliance. His Gaines is as patient, unassuming, and nuanced as his Idi Amin was demanding, charismatic, and blustery.
And Winfrey, who was Oscar-nominated as best supporting actress for The Color Purple in 1985, matches him every step of the way, letter-perfect in splendid support.
Oscar nominations for both seem assured.
The film’s chief strengths -– the lead performances, the scope, the pace, the impact of the climax –- add up to a remarkable, admirable, truly rewarding cinematic experience, a cinematic history lesson with a distinct, appropriate, and refreshingly atypical point of view.
So we’ll serve 3½ stars out of 4 for a deeply moving drama with inescapable contemporary resonance. The Butler’s pantry is very well stocked.