In his first three films as a director, Lee Daniels showed an utter lack of taste. Unlike, say, John Waters, who reveled in trash in order to thumb his nose -- and every other body part -- at social norms, Daniels served up outrageous transgressions while striving to be considered an important artist. The Butler finds Daniels tempering his worst instincts and finally making the kind of movie that may earn him the respect he so plainly believes he deserves.
The film stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, who, as a boy, sees his father shot dead by the owner of the cotton plantation that employed him. Cecil is schooled in the art of domestic care, and eventually leaves to try to make it on his own. He lands a job in Washington, D.C., where he learns so much about service that he's recruited to interview as a butler in the White House.
He stays on the White House staff through the tumultuous civil-rights movement, quietly earning the respect and interest of every president from Eisenhower to Reagan. Meanwhile, as he stoically continues to perform his job, his eldest son Louis (played as an adult by David Oyelowo) grows up to be a political firebrand, first joining the Freedom Riders and eventually becoming a Black Panther. As the two headstrong men remain at odds for decades, Cecil's devoted wife (Oprah Winfrey) does her best to keep her marriage and her family together.
There are all sorts of pitfalls that can sink a sweeping, ambitious biopic that attempts to retell a huge swath of American history, but for the first half of The Butler, Daniels sidesteps all of them -- sometimes with an unexpected elegance. He's helped a great deal by Whitaker, an actor who can be prickly and occasionally threatening without losing an audience's goodwill. He masterfully plays what the character refers to as "the two faces": the one he has around white people and the one he has in private. Whitaker doesn't draw an easy line between the two -- there aren't two different versions of Cecil, yet when he's on the job he's forever pausing just long enough so we can register that he's formulating exactly how and what he can say and do in front of the men he serves.
Whitaker does understated work for a director who, in the past, hasn't bothered all that much with understatement; his debut feature starred Cuba Gooding Jr. and Helen Mirren as an incestuous pair of stepmother-and-stepson assassins. However, this time out it looks as if the filmmaker has taken a cue from his leading man. Daniels doesn't accentuate or try to shock us with outlandish acts, a self-discipline that leads to the finest sequence of his career in which images of Louis and his fellow Freedom Riders being taunted and abused while staging a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter are intercut with Cecil, full of dignity, again providing flawless table service during a White House function. It's a powerful piece of filmmaking that clearly expresses the conflict and themes at the center of the story, and it makes the movie worthy of its end-credit dedication to all of the men and women who fought for civil rights.
That sequence brings the first half of the picture to a close, and while the second half falls into predictability, it never sinks to the level of maudlin thanks to fine work from the actors. Winfrey is too big a persona to completely disappear into playing a typical housewife, but there's no trace of the media mogul in her performance here; Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz provide first-rate comic relief as Cecil's co-workers; and Whitaker simply knows how to hold the screen regardless of the intensity of the emotion he's playing in a given scene.
As for the parade of celebrities portraying various late-20th century presidents, only James Marsden fits in flawlessly as JFK, mostly because he gets the accent close enough. Nobody is shockingly bad, but neither Robin Williams nor Alan Rickman ever really disappears into their respective parts (Eisenhower and Reagan). Liev Schreiber doesn't even try a Texas accent as LBJ, and John Cusack's contempt for Nixon keeps him from coming close to capturing the man's inner complexities.
That said, none of them derails the movie because Daniels manages to make it clear that this story is about Cecil, not the presidents. He's pulled off the difficult trick of making a film about someone who, on paper, isn't nearly as interesting as the people around him. That's no simple feat, and screenwriter Danny Strong (Recount) deserves credit for building Cecil into a steady central figure who supports the entire movie.
Lee Daniels' The Butler is the kind of old-fashioned Oscar bait that Academy members are drawn to. However, unlike some cynical attempts to court favor with the Hollywood elite, it's solidly crafted, strongly acted, and -- most excitingly -- it shows that Daniels has evolved as a director. It's the finest work of his career so far.