Lee Daniels’ The Butler is an ambitious, sweeping period drama that manages to be incredibly affecting and feel as if the words ”For Your Consideration” are stamped across every frame. Inspired by the true story of an African-American steward who worked under eight presidents (Truman through Reagan), the film stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines — an unassuming man who witnesses history close-up at a time when a new chapter seems to be written daily. As proof of how radically the world will change during his lifetime, the story begins with Cecil as a boy working on a cotton plantation, where his employer (a fragile, haughty Vanessa Redgrave) teaches him how to serve white folks: ”The room should feel empty when you’re in it.” Years pass, and Cecil lands a job at a ritzy D.C. hotel, where his white-gloved obsequiousness grabs the attention of a White House aide, who hires him.
As the film skims Forrest Gump-style through turbulent decades and various inhabitants of the Oval Office (a fun but distracting parade of famous faces, including Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as the Reagans), Cecil struggles with his messier home life. It’s the only place where his gift for orderliness fails him. His wife (a beautifully nuanced Oprah Winfrey) is an alcoholic, and his older son (David Oyelowo) is a rebellious civil rights activist. Neither can draw this Invisible Man out of his shell. As Cecil, Whitaker is mesmerizing. The actor seems to shrink into his imposing frame, summoning a performance of quiet, bottled-up force. There’s no question that Daniels, the director of 2009’s Precious, deserves some of the credit for that. But as undeniably moving and powerful as his film is, it could have used more of that subtlety. The fact that he even comes close makes The Butler worth seeing. B+