Aug. 14 2013 03:43 PM

American history unfolds up close in this drama starring Forest Whitaker

Winfrey and Whitaker, witnesses to history

"The room should feel empty when you're in it. You hear nothing; you see nothing." White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) has lived by such a professional code ever since 1926, when, as a child, he was forced to become a house servant on a Georgia plantation. In the early moments of Lee Daniels' The Butler, Cecil's first boss calls this public / private duality the "two faces," something African-Americans are forced to master in order to survive in the white man's world.

Throughout Lee Daniels' The Butler, an expansive and elegant biopic based on real-life White House butler Eugene Allen (who Cecil stands in for as a fictional representation), we see how professional servitude and emotional invisibility stand in stark contrast to a man's personal life. It's a theme of practiced deception that inevitably touches each character and transcends race, from the multiple iconic figures that make appearances to Cecil's own family, including his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo).

Details accumulated by singular fly-on-the-wall experiences remain essential to the film's outlook on American history. A few standouts include Cecil's memory of Jackie Kennedy (Minka Kelly) refusing to take off her bloodstained pink dress after JFK's assassination, and Richard Nixon (a perfect John Cusack) slithering into the pantry to recruit the black vote and steal a cookie. These intimate moments exist outside the classic definition of history as a linear record, residing on the fringes of one man's memory, witnessed from up close and almost by accident.

This motif expands beyond Cecil's gaze to include Louis' progression from disaffected youth to civil-rights activist and eventual Black Panther member. Essentially a father-and-son story at heart, the film jumps between Cecil's privileged view of Washington's backdoor politics and his son's tumultuous journey fighting for black rights in the South.

Daniels connects the two stories in brilliant ways, including a standout montage sequence that cuts between Cecil's meticulous performance serving at a state dinner and Louis' horrifying experience during a sit-in protest at a diner. Taken as a whole, this segment both exemplifies and subverts the "two faces" ideology in a burst of cinematic style.

Another essential overlap comes in a short scene where Dr. Martin Luther King (Nelsan Ellis) explains to Louis how the role of the black domestic can seamlessly undermine racial hatred. Only here does he begin to recognize how his father's place in history has made an impact, however small it may seem.

Where most biopic films attempt to lionize their subjects with simplistic sensationalism, Daniels favors restraint when dealing with the many chapters of Cecil's life. Very little judgment exists, only the consideration of given moments from multiple competing perspectives. This is surprising considering the director's track record, which includes the contrived melodrama Precious and the amazingly sleazy noir, The Paperboy.

Lee Daniels' The Butler (a title forced upon distributor The Weinstein Company after it lost an MPAA arbitration ruling filed by Warner Brothers) loses steam in the final act, depending wholeheartedly on clear-cut versions of redemption and defiance in anticipation of the Obama era. But, by then, Daniels has long since fortified his version as something substantial. Ultimately, it's a film about visualizing one's place in history, and then being reminded how terrifying that process can be.

Instead of ridiculing or denying the existence of Cecil's struggle with the "two faces" mentality, the film—which opens widely around San Diego on Friday, Aug. 16—explores what it means to grapple with such an ideological force over the course of changing time periods and viewpoints. Thanks to Whitaker's understated and powerful performance, this dilemma is given a human face. Daniels is courageous enough to present this issue on equal terms with the great events that defined America in the 20th century. That's pretty radical. 

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