The Butler might be blunt with the points it's trying to make about history's past transgressions, but ultimately it's still moving. One could compare it to 1985's The Color Purple, a film that was nominated for many awards and is among the films that have helped pundits to determine what future films they call "Oscar Bait". I know the term is just used to describe a film that is deemed "prestige" come the awards circuit, but I've never been fond of the term. Even when it isn't used as such, it seems to make a film seem like less than the sum of its parts. The Butler is directed by Lee Daniels (Precious), written by Danny Strong (Recount), and has a large cast of countlessly recognizable names. Yet it's far from "bait".
The Butler is inspired by the story of African American Cecil Gaines, who started out with his family on a plantation, ran away, and became the White House butler under eight presidencies (five of which are focused on in the film). As the quiet servant who must observe parts of a century of drastic change that is equally depressing as it is inspiring, the film has a chance to show Gaines interact with historical figures and events in the vein of Zemeckis' Forrest Gump. Instead, and much to my surprise, the film focuses on the Gaines family. Those scenes are certainly powerful, but I was expecting the film to focus on the presidents who instead are effectively cameos in Gaines' story. To focus on the White House for a second, the presidents are portrayed as fragments of how America remembers them, which frankly, I don't have much of a problem with despite the wish to see the actors in more scenery. One always says there are truths inherent in stereotypes and I suppose the same is true of caricatures. Afterall, I seem to remember Clinton and W. Bush more along the lines of their SNL impersonations than their CNN apperances.
To focus back on Gaines, since the presidents are just a part of his work life, we get to see what happens when Gaines comes home to his family as one part of his being sinks into another. In a way, by focusing on the family unit, the film makes its point much better than trying to rationalize or be overly accurate with history. As Cecil's wife, Gloria Gaines, Oprah Winfrey is a presence on screen. I hope she continues to act because she is already a star as a just a celebrity figure and she can be (if not already is in the eyes of some) the same as an actress. David Oyelowo plays Gaines' son, Louis, an impressionable boy who on his journey through adulthood decides to become a part of the Civil Rights movement going as far to work alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and then becoming a Black Panther. I've been noticing Oyelowo in a lot of films as of late and this one in particular (the other being the superb and underrated Middle of Nowhere) allows him to really stretch and take a character through a significant arc making him the kind of actor who I look forward to popping up in whatever film I plan on seeing that has him as a part of the cast.
Then of course there is Forest Whitaker. A highly accomplished actor, his portrayal of Cecil is worthy of the rest of his distinguised filmography (my favorites being as varied as Ghost Dog and Idi Amin). His work here is transformative and quietely impassioned. He drives home the point that this movie really is about a family and the relationship a father and husband has with those around him. Praise is deserved for Danny Strong and Lee Daniels who move the audience through many different eras that Daniels directs in a few different styles (although the film's editing is certainly its strongest aesthetic quality). As I mentioned above, the movie may suddenly feel like a history lesson, but throughout it all we are asked to empathize with Cecil, which is the most important quality of the film no matter how well or poorly crafted I suppose one might find the work as a whole.