Unlike “Olympus Has Fallen” and “White House Down,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” takes us inside the iconic mansion without breaking a plate or destroying a painting. In fact, as is the titular character, longtime White House Butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), the film is extremely respectful of the structure that stands as a symbol of the United States and its freedoms.
Not that “The Butler” doesn’t show the tensions exploding in and out of the great house and its inhabitants. Loosely based on the late Eugene Allen, a black Southerner who served from 1952 to 1986, “The Butler” follows the fictional Gaines as an eyewitness to history from Presidents Eisenhower to Reagan. The emphasis here is on civil rights, as Gaines must wear two faces: One of passivity as the loyal benign servant in the palace of power; the other at his home confronting an alcoholic wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and Black Power activist son, Louis (David Oyelowo).
Whitaker is perfectly cast for his face alone which, without moving a muscle speaks volumes, as he stands stock still in the midst of the world’s most important people (“The room should feel empty when you’re in it,” instructs his supervisor).
Yet, Presidents do occasionally confide in him. Lonely and drunk, Richard Nixon (John Cusak with a rubber nose) wants his company on a dark night before his resignation. Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) gives Gaines and fellow black staff members a raise equal to their white counterparts, but admits he may be wrong about his support of South African apartheid. John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) knows that Louis Gaines has a civil rights arrest record and tells Cecil of his concern.
“The Butler” gets a bit “Forrest Gump”-ish when Louis appears at almost every historically significant civil rights moment (he is in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Memphis motel room before the fatal shooting).
We also see the final payoff for African- Americans and everyone else in the world in the inauguration of Barack Obama (himself in news clips) as President of the United States. This political promotion takes some of the dramatic punch out of what is a powerful picture of America’s racial struggle from a unique perspective within the White House itself.
Under the skillful, impassioned direction of Lee Daniels, “The Butler” will bring a tear to your eye and a surge of pride in America’s progress for equality for all people.
See it and be glad it keeps the White House intact.