Oprah. Five presidents played by everyone from Severus Snape to Mrs. Doubtfire. Every major Civil Rights group in history. Terrence Howard trying to have an affair with Oprah. A 90-year time span. There’s so much going on in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” that it shouldn’t work, but to figure out why it does, look no further than its title.
Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is not just the film’s titular character but its heart. The son of a Georgia sharecropper, he eventually becomes a White House butler, serving for seven presidents (five of whom are depicted in the film) throughout one of the most cataclysmic periods in America. It could be easy for Cecil to be a symbol, but Whitaker ensures that despite the tumult of history Cecil is grounded in his humanity. The mere slackening of Whitaker’s shoulders or worry in his brow says so much more of Cecil’s internal struggle of working at a racist White House than a line could. The film is often contrived and heavy-handed, but Whitaker is always understated and therefore the most sympathetic and powerful character on screen.
However, Lee Daniels doesn’t miss any opportunity to discuss the Civil Rights movement in all of its fervor. Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo) is the poster boy for the movement by participating in almost every element of it: riding the bus with the Freedom Riders, hanging out with Martin Luther King, Jr., becoming a Black Panther and eventually a politician. This is the part of the film that gets weighed down by its own significance. Yet the juxtaposition of Louis’ active struggle for freedom with Cecil’s calm servitude is striking.
Despite the dramatic tone of the film, the presidents add some humor, whether intentional or not. John Cusack twitches like his prosthetic nose doesn’t fit him quite right and plays the smarmy, paranoid Nixon like a caricature. If possible, Liev Schreiber’s farcically crude LBJ is even worse. Schreiber’s accent flips between thick Texan drawl and his natural California clip, as if he thought his role was small enough he didn’t need to bother mastering it. Even though James Marsden and Alan Rickman make a fairly good Kennedy and Reagan respectively, they are overshadowed by others who took their cameo too literally.
Even with all of its flaws, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is grounded by its characters, who remind us that behind every institution and movement is a person just trying to get by. Oh, and Oprah was surprisingly great.