Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” is a sort of Reader’s Digest overview of the 20th century American civil rights movement centered on an ordinary individual with an extraordinary perspective. This fictional account of a Southern black man who worked as a White House butler under seven presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan is a very middle-of-the-road movie politically and aesthetically with myriad issues to carp about. But the long arc of this man’s story, which begins in a Georgia cotton field and ends with an invitation back to his longtime work place to meet the first black president of the United States, describes a personal, racial and national journey in a way that is quite moving and will have a powerful effect on all manner of audiences. The film’s costar, Oprah Winfrey, will personally see to it that masses of people are mobilized to turn out, older viewers will welcome something to see other than sci-fi and comics-derived extravaganzas, and the Weinstein Company’s decision to bypass the early fall festivals to seize the same August release slot “The Help” occupied two summers ago will likely prove to be a shrewd one.
Long-retired White House butler Eugene Allen was a figure unknown to the public until Nov. 7, 2008, three days after Barack Obama’s election as president, when Wil Haygood’s article about his unusual life appeared in The Washington Post. To eliminate dramatic constraints the script fictionalizes the leading character by renaming him Cecil Gaines, who is eloquently played by Forest Whitaker as a picture of modesty and rectitude, an unchanging human bastion of calm and reliability in a 20th century world that is anything but.
As a young man, Cecil gets waiter and bartender jobs at whites-only venues, marries Gloria (Winfrey) and has two sons and, upon applying for a White House kitchen job in 1957, is immediately asked by the reigning butler, “Are you political?” It’s clear that, if he were to give the wrong answer, the interview would go no further. Once he wins the coveted job he’s sworn to secrecy and is advised that, “You see nothing. You only serve.”
As it happens, President Eisenhower (Robin Williams) is just then dealing with the issue of forced integration of schools in Arkansas. He tries to draw the reluctant Cecil out on the subject and when the president sends in army troops to enforce the court order, Cecil returns home to admiringly remark that this is “the first time I ever saw a president stick his neck out for us.”
With her husband constantly on call and so devoted to his work, Gloria has too much time on her hands; her turning to drink and extra-marital temptations are lightly sketched in. Gloria finally gets her wish to set foot in the White House when the Reagans (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda) invite the Gaineses to be their guests at a state dinner (Cecil being waited on by his old pals is very amusing).
Aging realistically as years go by, Whitaker remains locked within a narrow range due to his character’s discretion but creates a finely tuned portrait of a man. Winfrey has more dramatic opportunities and is quite enjoyable to watch. Cuba Gooding, Jr and Lenny Kravitz have their moments as fellow longtime butlers with Cecil. The best cameo comes from Jane Fonda, who is very good as a gracious Nancy Reagan. The unusual choice of Portuguese composer Rodrigo Leao has paid off in a flavorsome, non-cookie cutter score that’s abetted by a raft of pop tunes that helps identify the quickly passing time periods.