“You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve.”
That's the instruction to Cecil Gaines as he joins the White House domestic staff in “Lee Daniels' The Butler.” And he tries. But Cecil sees and hears, and the movie lets us see and hear, the history of the civil rights movement as it unfolds inside the White House.
Gaines is based on a real person, Eugene Allen, who served as a White House butler from 1952 to '86. He was the subject of a 2008 article and then a book by Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood.
Director Daniels (“Monster's Ball,” “Precious”) and screenwriter Danny Strong have taken liberties with Haygood's home and family life but say the White House events all happened as represented in the movie.
The movie's chief strengths are the quiet, dignified performance of Oscar winner Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”) as Gaines and in its sweep of civil rights history. From Eisenhower dealing with school integration in Little Rock, JFK the same at Ole Miss, Reagan's response to South African apartheid and so on, we become flies on the wall to momentous decisions. The movie ends as Gaines lives to see Barack Obama, in person, in the Oval Office.
“The Butler” also is striking for how it depicts the two faces black people were often forced to wear — the ones they wore in private and the ones they showed whites. Unlike “The Help,” this movie about civil rights history keeps a black family as its focus. It is much more from an African-American point of view.
Cecil must deal not only with a boozing wife (Oprah Winfrey), who is unhappy with his workaholic devotion to his job, but also with an activist son who aligns himself with Martin Luther King Jr., the Freedom Riders and — after King's assassination — the Black Panthers. David Oyelowo is terrific as the son, and the scenes between him and Whitaker crackle with energy and emotion.
Winfrey also scores some fine screen moments as her character takes up with a philandering neighbor (Terrence Howard) and confronts her differences with her husband. Cuba Gooding Jr. is also solid as a fellow White House butler who makes Gaines take a second look at his relationship with his wayward son.
Where the movie stumbles is in its rush to squeeze so much into 2 hours and 10 minutes, lessening the emotional impact of some moments. Yet it has the power to bring you to tears at a couple of points.
I also had a problem with some novel casting of famous actors playing famous people, which occasionally took me out of the story. Some of them were pretty good: Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, John Cusack as Nixon. Some were less successful at capturing the essence of their characters: Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Liev Schreiber as (no Southern accent) LBJ.
But those are all basically cameos, as is Vanessa Redgrave's appearance as the matriarch over a Georgia cotton plantation, where young Cecil sees his father murdered by her son. She takes pity on the boy, making him household staff and teaching him how to serve. (“The room should feel empty with you in it.”)
In the end, the movie belongs to Whitaker and the arc of history, and they are a satisfying cinematic meal in and of themselves. For older moviegoers, “The Butler” reminds how far this country has come in dealing with race relations, and how far it has yet to go. For younger viewers, it's a visit to dark corners of the national past they might benefit from understanding more fully.