Instead of brutally forcing his audience to witness abuse as in Precious, Lee Daniels speaks of one of America's most violent times in a very non-violent manner in The Butler. This is a very polished picture, shining as the cutlery or the shoes Cecil Gaines is silently and diligently looking after, in his perfect white gloves. From the cotton fields where he grew up to the refined halls of the White House, Cecil Gaines acts as a damn fine house nigger, able to behave, serve and make conversation with style and in the most comfortable manner possible. Cecil is the man for the job in terms of submission, acceptance, servility, the perfect butler in a racial America that breathes violence and speaks of the almighty power of the white man.
Similar to the character Forest Whitaker is skillfully playing, The Butler is a quiet movie that has not once intended to raise any issue or bring any offence; it is upsettingly nice and well-behaved and although the story is presented from Cecil Gaines' point of view, it still lacks the boldness and the sparkle of an unforgettable movie. That is not to say that there are no moving scenes or passionate moments, especially those focusing on Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), the wife, whose occasional carelessness feels more appealing to the viewers than her domestic attributes. Gloria is a former housemaid turned into a respectable housewife whose passions swing between liquor and amateur seamstressing, her womanizer of a neighbour, Howard (Terence Howard) and her working, yet absent husband, Cecil. Eventually, Gloria grows out of her addiction to be a good mother and a loyal wife, the president of a house where Cecil feels as invisible as he is at his workplace. Yet, her performance is powerful and charismatic, a character that brings force and commitment to the picture.
Serving seven white US President is no easy job, requiring a lack of presence that feels alive and opportune, a perfect face, a fleeting smile, a deaf year and an unopinionated presence. Cecil has learned the hard way to keep his mouth shut -his mother gets raped and his father gets shot for standing up to the white devil- so he slips into invisible clothes whenever around the white man, an attire that becomes his second skin and keeps him away from his wife and two sons. As a father, he brings home the bacon, yet fails to nurture a good relationship with his older son with whom he becomes estranged for most of his life. The younger son is the Uncle Sam figure that sadly perishes in the Vietnam War, whereas the elder son, Louis (David Oyelowo), is the rebel who walks with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, taking defiance from jailhouse to home and back to the streets.
Less language-abusive and less demanding than last year's Django Unchained, The Butler's reminiscent of Forest Gump's travel through history with a different perspective, less humorous and less dramatic than The Colour Purple. Nevertheless, the movie holds a place of its own, with an incredible cast -Eisenhower (Robin Williams), another fellow butler played by Lenny Kravitz, Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Schriber), Nixon (John Cusack) and Reagan (Alan Rickman) and his pretty wife, Nancy (Jane Fonda)- and some great performances. Rhythm may be slow, Hollywood conventions may be abundant, yet the alternating shots of the butler's impeccable work at the White House and his son's radical and revolutionary actions are exceptional. A proclamation of Black history, the movie is also about family tensions and the over-dramatizing of the poetry of life, things that may be to some people's liking or bear too much resemblance to Hollywood mainstream cinema, for others. In a word, a movie that is more about the outstanding performances and less about the sparkling story.