Back in 1997, when Steven Spielberg released “Amistad,” it was a pretty huge deal for a big-name Hollywood filmmaker to tackle slavery. Now the deal is a lot bigger for Lee Daniels, the second African-American filmmaker in United States history to be nominated for an Oscar (for “Precious” in 2009), who gives us “The Butler,” a story of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement as seen through the eyes of a black butler in service at the White House.
Forest Whitaker stars as Cecil Gaines, who started life as a sharecropper’s son in Tennessee, and whose earliest memories are of working in a cotton field alongside his dad. “The only thing I knew was cotton,” goes Cecil’s narrative, and he will spend most of his adult years trying to forget laboring under a hot sun, and how his father was shot down by a white man for daring to speak up.
Based on a true story, “The Butler” is sometimes awkward in its sincerity and utter seriousness: Daniels’ desire to tell the world what happens to Cecil, who is based on longtime White House butler Eugene Allen, overpowers the entertainment factor. But the payoff is there: We get to see a black man living through some of the most tumultuous years of American history, and his take on surviving them.
Cecil observes but he rarely comments, even when John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) asks him for an opinion on racial segregation. The butler’s face seems carved with lines of self-discipline, and he behaves with the same caliber of disinterested graciousness whether he’s with Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda) in a White House corridor or handing prune juice to a constipated Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber) on his private toilet.
In many ways, this comes off like an immigrant story: For the longest time, Cecil goes around with the mindset of a man fresh off the boat, always unsure of his welcome and desperate to find his own niche in the outermost fringes of the American Dream. Whitaker’s performance is outstanding and understated, even as Cecil’s wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey, impressive in her first proper big-screen role since “Beloved” in 1998) and their two sons find him a tad too rigid and unapproachable.
Inwardly, Cecil knows he rocks — in the space of a few decades, he makes the leap from field hand to White House staff member. He’s deeply satisfied that his sons “have never set foot in a cotton field” and his wife is comfortable in a nice house. But the second generation pipes up to say that’s not enough. His oldest boy, Louis (David Oyelowo), believes black Americans should demand not just a job and a roof over their heads, but respect and equality too. It is the 1960s, and Louis’ belief comes with a huge price tag, one that Cecil is terrified to pay.
The generation gap is like a raw wound: Father is fine with being treated like an alien in his own country, while son wants to stride the world as a U.S. citizen, with his rights and freedom guaranteed. Theirs is a compelling battle to witness, but sadly (and infuriatingly) Cecil almost always walks away, back to his butler’s duties and the turf that keeps him safe.
As a Japanese, I could hear the footsteps of a million salarymen in Cecil’s gait. In spite of the differing history, these are men convinced that their only shot at dignity comes from their commitment to the job. And darn if they’ll let any son persuade them otherwise.