Lee Daniels' The Butler: Must See-Oscar Caliber Film

Opens August 16

Ambitious, engaging, and extremely well-acted, Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” is a sprawling epic tale set against the tumultuous political backdrop of 20th century America.

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It’s a pleasure to report that after Daniels’ messy and shapeless 2011 film, “The Paperboy,” which was both a critical and commercial flop, the director is back on terra ferma with his most challenging and fully-realized drama to date. “The Butler” may lack the emotional power of Daniels’ “Precious,” but it’s certainly a more demanding and ambitious film, dealing with both particular and universal issues.

Daniels’ sweeping drama tells the story of a White House butler named Cecil Gaines, who has remarkably served during eight presidential administrations between 1957 and 1986, thus covering a crucial era in the nation’s history, from the Cold War through Reagonomics.

In the lead role, Forest Whitaker gives an astonishing performance that should definitely earn him another Best Actor nomination, if not the Oscar itself. Of the very gifted group of African American stars—-Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Samuel Jackson–Whitaker is the most modest in terms of talent, range and publicity. Soft-spoken but articulate in real life (I had the honor of serving with him on the 2003 Dramatic Jury of the Sundance Film Fest), Whitaker immerses himself into every role he plays, without any mannerisms or egos. End result is a rich, multi-nuanced, mesmerizing turn-—when he is on screen (even with Oprah Winfrey), you cannot take your eyes off him.

“The Butler” is inspired by Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” which chronicled the real-life of former White House butler Eugene Allen. For obvious reasons, the filmmakers had to fictionalize various details of a man who had tried to be invisible and yet his race and position prevented him from achieving that.

As an historical epic, “The Butler” covers six crucial decades. The saga begins in 1926, as a coming-of-age story, before following the young Cecil ( a fictionalized version of Allen) as he escapes the tyranny of the then rigidly segregated South, searching for a better life for himself.

Unfolding as a journey—-both physical and emotional, external and internal-—the text dwells on how the African American youngster, who is motivated by strong instincts for survival and progress, acquires skills that would prove invaluable in landing a desirable position as a butler at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Occupying the position of an insider-outsider in the rooms of power (and behind closed doors), Cecil becomes a firsthand witness to history. He also observes the inner workings of the Oval Office as the civil rights movement unfolds. It should be remembered that the early chapters—especially during Eisenhower and Kennedy– take place before the invasion of paparazzi and the media into the White house, and before such popular TV shows as “The West Wing,” which have often revealed more than we want or need to know about the world’s most famous institution (and home) and its ruling elite.

Lee Daniels and his writers know that, at this point in popular culture, the average moviegoers are obsessed with celebrities, including the President, the First Lady, their families, and their staffs, and so they shrewdly pay attention in minutia detail to the butler’s private and domestic lives.

At home, his loving wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey, in an impressive comeback) raises their two sons, and the family benefits from a comfortable middle-class existence, which is enabled by Cecil’s White House position.

But Cecil’s commitment to his “First Family” fosters tensions at home, and so there are tensions within and without his biological family. His dedication to the job alienates Gloria, who gets dissatisfied and begins to look elsewhere for attention and gratification. More importantly, it creates intergenerational conflict with his rebellious son (David Oyelowo), who, true to his race and the spirit of the times, becomes a vocal anti-establishment figure.

Through the eyes and emotions of one family–the Gaines—Daniels follows the changing tides of American politics and race relations. We observe with alarm the traumatic assassinations of John F. Kennedy (in 1963) and Martin Luther King (in 1968), the Freedom Riders and Black Panther movements, the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal.

The filmmakers let us enter into Cecil’s mind and growing consciousness, as he experiences firsthand the impact of the “external” political and the “internal” personal events, which are ourse intimately interrelated, as both an insider and a family man.

The incredible supporting cast that includes Yaya Alafia, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Elijah Kelley, Minka Kelly, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber and Robin Williams.

Through the tale of the resilience of one extraordinary man, Daniels shows the growth of America as a powerful nation and the force of the nuclear family as an institution, both of which go through ups and downs and ups.

Considering the extensive historical era it covers, and the colorful and divergent persona, “The Butler” might have worked better as a TV miniseries. Even so, Daniels directs in a cleaner, less lurid, less hysterical style than he did in his previous films, a result of his reverential respect toward the material at hand.

Ultimately, it’s the safe and middlebrow strategy that would sell the potentially explosive text to viewers of Middle America. It might sound as an iffy compliment, but “The Butler” is neat, tidy, and informative enough to be shown in schools, and to serve as a platform for a serious discussion about the role and impact of race and interracial relationships on American society and culture over the past 90 years.

And for that we have to be grateful.