The dramatic structure of “The Butler” rests on a gimmick, and a pretty good gimmick at that. It’s the story of an African-American man who saw history pass before his eyes as a White House butler for seven presidential administrations, from Eisenhower through Reagan. This character, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) — a largely fictionalized version of a real White House staffer named Eugene Allen — is a fly on the wall of the civil rights era, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and much more, yet he lives only to serve. He’s a Forrest Gump for the racial underclass.
Yet “The Butler” is a remarkable, even exhilarating movie not for its inherent Gump-itude but for the social portrait that gimmick allows. Is this the first film about the black struggle to belong in America (as opposed to to America) in which the whites aren’t heroic prime movers? Feels that way, especially in the wake of “The Help.” More compellingly, “The Butler” finds its drama in the generational stress-fractures of average, hard-working African-Americans as they navigated those tortured decades. It’s a side of the history we really haven’t seen before. And it’s a revelation.
(A side note: The full title of the movie is “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” not because the “Precious” director has delusions of grandeur but because a rival studio — Warner Bros. — didn’t want the new film confused with 1916’s “The Butler” and because Harvey Weinstein doubtless thought the kerfuffle would be good for publicity. Daniels has gone on record as not being happy with the change.)
Daniels and his screenwriter Danny Strong are fully aware of the distance their hero and the country in which he lives will have to travel. “The Butler” opens in 1926 Georgia, with the young Cecil (Michael Rainey Jr.) working the cotton fields with his father (David Banner) and mother (singer Mariah Carey, as unrecognizable here as she was in “Precious”). The facts of this life are bleakly, brutally presented: a people who exist (or not) at the sufferance of another people, a life where advancement means coming out of the fields to work as a “house nigger.” Cecil learns to polish silver and serve tea, and he takes to heart the lesson given to him by the mistress of the house (Vanessa Redgrave): “A room should feel empty when you’re in it.”
He’s good at that — at wearing a blank mask for the white folks. A few decades and a few hotels later, Cecil is in Washington, serving drinks to the senators as they fulminate that desegregationist Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren should be hanged. He gets the call to the White House and joins the bustling backstairs life, where the black employees make half of what the white employees do.
Refreshingly, “The Butler” is less concerned with events in the Oval Office than in the rest of the country and in Cecil’s own home. His wife, Gloria — Oprah Winfrey in a weary, wrinkled housedress of a performance — initially thrills when he lands the job, then slides into disgust and boredom when her husband’s work ethic keeps him at the White House until all hours. Their older son, Louis (David Oyelowo), heads off to join the Freedom Riders and sees his father as an Uncle Tom; their younger son, Charlie (Elijah Kelley), gets sent to Vietnam. You can see where this is all heading.
Yet even as “The Butler” goes overboard in its “you are here, there, and everywhere” historical march — it gets a bit much when Louis turns up in Martin Luther King Jr.’s Memphis hotel room, or when his girlfriend (Yaya Alafia, who’s very good) comes to dinner with a full-on Angela Davis afro — its portraiture of an older generation’s social milieu is unerring. I’ve never seen a movie this mainstream-minded so little concerned with what a white audience thinks, not in a confrontational way but in its simple fidelity to black American life as it was experienced in the mid-20th century. This is how we lived, the movie says. This is what our homes looked like, and how our music sounded; this what we argued over at the kitchen table and how we celebrated, what divided us and what brought us together.
“The Butler” keeps springing surprises in the casting of its historical roles, all of which look ridiculous on paper and most of which turn out to be bizarrely right in the playing. This does not include Robin Williams as Eisenhower (the imposture just doesn’t take) or Liev Schreiber as LBJ (the accent’s all wrong), but James Marsden has the right Pepsodent gleam as JFK — we get the valet’s-eye-view of his various ailments — and who would have thought that John Cusack could nail Richard Nixon in all his uneasy klutziness? The actress who plays Nancy Reagan is a particular surprise, but more so is the empathetic graciousness with which she plays her.
Yet it’s the people who work for them we remember in this movie: the shallow, effervescent Carter (Cuba Gooding Jr.), the politically astute James (Lenny Kravitz), Cecil’s no-good neighbor Howard (Terrence Howard). We see their lives unfold, the choices they make, and the consequences those choices have. At the movie’s center is Cecil, the perfect butler, and we understand that his silence is a choice that brings its own hard bargains. Whitaker, a gentle bear of an actor, gives a masterful performance, attentive to the ways Cecil’s pride in his work increasingly comes up against his pride as a black man. The character’s growth — as a husband, father, professional, and human being — is the film’s real story, and by extension it’s the story of an entire generation. “The Butler” asks us to look, and look hard, at a man who thought the only way forward was by keeping invisible.