Octogenarian Cecil Gaines sits in a White House hallway waiting for a historic appointment in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”
Portrayed with a special brand of grace and ache by Forest Whitaker, Cecil has a memory. It is of two men hanging, bodies pressed together in the dark of night, high above a street. The lighting, the angle of the camera shot itself, offer up the strange and bitter fruit Billie Holiday first sang of in 1939.
A history lesson in violence and endurance. A sentimental journey. A tribute. Director Daniels and the dedicated cast of “The Butler” deliver all that.
The movie traces the Civil Rights era through the experiences of Gaines as he serves seven presidential administrations but also as he lives at home with his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and their sons Louis and Charlie.
Screenwriter Danny Strong took his inspiration from journalist Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article about Eugene Allen, the White House butler who served from 1952 to 1986, and lived to see a black man become president of the United States. Cecil is a composite of Allen and other White House employees.
“The Butler” is epic. It opens in Macon, Ga., in 1926 and ends shortly after the election of President Barack Obama. Daniels weaves actual broadcast images from the Civil Rights movement into his story, which finds Cecil’s oldest son, Louis, growing increasingly engaged in the movements for racial equality.
Daniels works deeply with actors. The performances are sharply nuanced. Winfrey’s turn is carnal and wise; Gloria is a mix of love, frustration, and need. David Oyelowo is responsible for the greatest arc as Cecil and Gloria’s son Louis. Elijah Kelley provides sweetly fresh moments as younger son, Charlie.
The father-son conflict provides a believable parable about the strategic tensions in the black community over the best course to equality. The parent-child conflict reverberates beyond politics — or race.
The cast is a star-driven affair without the vanity: Vanessa Redgrave is a plantation matron. Robin Williams, Liev Schreiber and John Cusack portray presidents. Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda are disarmingly appealing as Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz do illuminating work as Cecil’s co-workers at the White House. Terrence Howard waxes seductive and galling as Cecil and Gloria’s longtime friend.
In another era, “The Butler” could have been a mini-series, the mixed-genre child of “Roots” and “Upstairs, Downstairs.”
What happens in Cecil and Gloria’s D.C. row house is as revealing of this nation’s journey as the goings-on in that other house.