Forest-Whitaker-Lee-Daniels'-The-Butler

You see nothing. You hear nothing. You only serve.

Cecil Gaines, the stoic hero at the center of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, is given this advise on his first day of service at The White House, and even though he most certainly takes it to heart, Gaines is anything but a shrinking violet. That’s because he’s played by Forest Whitaker, who imbues him with a quiet courage that is as imitable as that of any battlefield warrior. Bolstered by this impressive tour de force, not to mention Daniels’ decision to contrast Gaines’s private battles with that of the equally courageous if slightly more demonstrative Civil Rights Protests of the 50’s and 60’s, this sprawling film manages to soar despite the heavy weight of its stunt casting.

We are first introduced to the epic life of Mr. Gaines during the tumultuous years between Southern reconstruction and integration in 1926 Georgia. Though he and his parents (David Banner and Mariah Carey) are no longer slaves, they still lead a hardscrabble life as cotton pickers on the Macon plantation of a sadistic scion, (Alex Pettyfer), who clearly hasn’t learned that the Civil War is over.

After tragedy strikes the Gaineses, the more compassionate if still very much acquiescent mistress of the plantation (Vanessa Redgrave) takes an interest in young Cecil (Aml Ameen) and has him transferred up to the house, where his easy-going and assiduous nature quickly proves quite beneficial. However, it’s not until leaving the plantation, and meeting a real mentor (Clarence Williams III) who teaches him to have pride in himself as a hardworking free man, that Cecil truly begins to come into his own.

Soon, he’s escaped the south for a more tolerant Washington DC, started a family with seamstress-turned-housewife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and moved up from a job at the Ambassador Hotel to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The rest is as they say, history, as Cecil serves under 8 presidents and sees the 20th century unfold before his eyes, all the while trying to do right by his neglected wife and reconcile his own deep feelings about civil rights with those of his fiercely activist eldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo).

It’s in this conflict between Cecil, representative of a generation whose close ties to slavery had shown them that keeping your head down and working hard were the best ways to achieve a better life, and his son, part of a younger generation much more removed from the horrors of the past, and determined to once and for all throw off the shackles of injustice at any cost, that the film truly comes alive.

Daniels and his screenwriter (Mad Men actor, Danny Strong) understand that there are many ways to fight a battle, and artfully contrasted scenes of Cecil flawlessly serving the world’s leaders at opulent state dinners with those of the 1960 North Carolina sit-in where several young black college students were harassed and beaten for daring to break the color line at a Woolworth’s counter, illustrate how each person of color fought numerous battles all in the hopes of shattering barriers for the next generation, in extremely different ways.

It’s just a shame that with such a delicate and insightful approach, Mr. Daniels also felt it necessary to stock this thing like he was Gary Marshall casting his next holiday themed rom com, a fact that often undercuts the power of each individual performance, and reduces what should be extremely poignant scenes into inevitable star-gazing opportunities (hello Mariah?).

Speaking of stargazing… it doesn’t get much bigger than Oprah Winfrey, but believe it or not, she’s not part of the problem. As the media queen has demonstrated in both of her previous big screen roles, including her Oscar-nominated breakthrough in The Color Purple, and her unfairly maligned starring role in 1998’s Beloved, she understands the human predicament, an ability that allows her to be authentic onscreen, even when her acting chops prove a bit rusty.

No, it’s the circus of stars around her, including the crew of A-listers who step up to tackle the presidents that becomes a bit too much. Of the bunch, Liev Schreiber, playing LBJ as the posturing Texas wildman that he was, fairs best, while John Cusack succeeds in capturing Nixon’s douchey intensity, and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda nail the Reagan’s homespun-by-way-of-Hollywood appeal (not to mention their walks). Otherwise, James Marsden and Minka Kelly are clearly in over their heads as the Kennedy’s, and Robin Williams is an unnecessary distraction as Eisenhower.

As for the rest of the cast, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Lenny Kravitz charm as Cecil’s work buddies. David Oyelowo brings the right amount of intensity to Louis, while Elijah Kelley delivers some much-needed laughs as younger Gaines son, Charlie. Also look out for the talented Yaya Alafia, who plays Louis’s girlfriend, and more than capably demonstrates this young lady’s transition from scared student to ferocious militant. At the end of the day though, this is Forest Whitaker’s film and he is firing on every cylinder throughout it. Capturing every nuance and movement of a man who’s seen life change dramatically in his 90 years, yet whose spirit, while often stomped on, was never broken, he is a force of nature.

As was Mr. Cecil Gaines, but Lee Daniels’ The Butler is not just the story of one man. It is also an honest, passionate, and unique retelling of a period in our history that many of us simply do not know enough about. Though occasionally overwhelmed by the sheer star power of his cast, Daniels’ film is another stirring testament to the unique talent and limitless soul of a natural born filmmaker.