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Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Divergent paths through the Civil Rights era

As a young boy in 1920s Georgia, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker: The Last Stand) learned how the world worked for black people. On a whim, their white land-owner not only rapes Cecil’s mother but also shoots his father, who is buried by his fellow black sharecroppers in a shallow grave.
    In compensation, Cecil is invited in as a house servant. The work is
easier than field labor, but he’s still treated as a sub-human.
    Determined to overcome and raise his children out of the way of prejudice, Cecil commits himself to a life of service, becoming one of the best butlers in the country. His hard work pays off when he’s invited to serve at the White House, where he’s witness to the intimate details of eight administrations.
    Cecil’s family doesn’t share their patriarch’s devotion to duty. Wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey: The Princess and the Frog) is unhappy as a homemaker and resentful of her husband’s long hours. Eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo: Jack Reacher) is ashamed that his father serves white men while African Americans suffer at the hands of the government.
    While Cecil is compelled to serve, Louis is compelled to protest, dividing his time between Civil Rights marches, sit-ins and freedom rides. His actions and arrests put his father’s job in jeopardy, but Louis continues to fight for freedom and against his father.
    Director Lee Daniels (The Paperboy) is a skillful editor as in a sequence that intercuts Louis’ preparation for a sit-in with Cecil’s preparation for a state dinner.
    The White House plays a major part in the story, but it feels like an afterthought. The actors playing the presidents offer little more than Saturday Night Live-worthy impressions, ranging from boisterously silly (Liev Schreiber as LBJ) to cloying (James Marsters as a saintly JFK).
    Best are interactions between the black butlers. Cecil’s comrades — played by Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. — offer interesting insight into the two sides to servitude. Inequality is mentioned but not explored. We never see a white servant, though we’re told they’re paid and treated better than the black staff.
    The Butler is beautifully acted. Whitaker and Oyelowo’s performances save it from becoming a Lifetime biopic. Whitaker is a revelation with his subtle performance as a man whose servitude was born in fear, cruelty and racism. Oyelowo is a perfect foil, brimming with righteous rage at the mistreatment of his people.
    Though The Butler is too long and often muddled, it is still a fascinating story of unheralded history.

Good Drama • PG-13 • 132 mins.