If Oprah Winfrey stars in your movie, then it must be a “very important” film. Not since Beloved in 1998 has Oprah appeared on camera as anyone but herself, so her media presence and capital behind the role of a wife whose husband serves seven presidents as a White House butler has made Lee Daniels’ The Butler an event.
Based on the true story of White House butler Eugene Allen, this cinematic slice of American history (rated PG-13 for some violence, language, thematic elements, and sexual material) stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, who rises from the fields of Georgia to become an accomplished house servant who ends up in the White House in 1957. Through Gaines’ eyes, the viewer experiences the civil rights movement as it played out through the presidents he served, from Eisenhower’s decision to send federal troops to Arkansas to enforce school integration to Reagan’s veto of anti-apartheid sanctions against South Africa.
Screenwriter Danny Strong and director Lee Daniels develop a multilayered examination of the civil rights era by expertly interweaving the experience of this humble, apolitical servant with that of his son Louis (David Oyelowo), who joins the Black Panthers and runs for political office. Much has been made of Allen’s Christianity, but the butler’s faith is only subtly implied here and demonstrated more through his servant’s heart.
This film boasts a star-studded supporting cast. Liev Schreiber serves up a standout, flamboyant portrayal of Lyndon Johnson, and a dialed-down Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, and a cunning John Cusack as Richard Nixon yield strong performances. Jane Fonda portrays Nancy Reagan, though her screen time is fairly brief and unremarkable.
Thanks to a well-crafted screenplay and a masterfully nuanced performance by Whitaker, the film mostly avoids the heavy-handedness that often accompanies message movies. Daniels’ directorial choices too often emphasize the didactic over the transportive, making this not a great but still important film.