THE BUTLER, directed by Lee Daniels (PRECIOUS) and loosely based on the real life story of White House butler Eugene Allen, is not the movie the previews and critics prepared us for. And that's a good thing. Instead, this is a crafty and often moving history lesson wrapped in a family drama. Oscar winner Forrest Whitaker (THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, in which he played Idi Amin) plays Cecil Gaines, who served as butler to Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. I expected a cursory sweep of big moments during those years, and I was partially correct. We see Cecil reading stories to Caroline Kennedy, we feel his discomfort as Lyndon Johnson uses the "N" word while working to expand civil rights, we enjoy Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan in a red outfit running the White House, we watch an intimate scene in which Cecil brings JFK his daily regimen of pills, and many more.
But THE BUTLER digs deeper, primarily into two dramas, the Civil Rights Movement and Cecil's family problems. His wife is played by Oprah Winfrey in a surprisingly effective performance. We watch her endure her husband's long absences, her older son's joining the civil rights movement and being shunned by his father for too many years, and her younger son's death in Vietnam. During these years Cecil tries to adhere to his job description of having no political opinion and being invisible in his job. But Cecil finally emerges from his self-imposed isolation, and that gives actor Forrest Whitaker his finest moments.
One of the film's sharpest techniques is cross-cutting between seemingly dissimalar events. Though obvious in intent, they still pack a wallop. While the White House staff is preparing for a state dinner, we cut to a civil rights sit-in the deep South. It is the most disturbing sequence in the film, moments that actually made this white viewer feel shame. This and other scenes show the civil rights movement in its strength, horror, and triumph like no other fictional film has before. THE BUTLER is a film that all of us should see and ponder.