In a parallel story, Cecil's older son Louis fights for his rights in Birmingham and Selma, sitting in at Woolworth lunch counters and on freedom rides. The history lesson encapsulated here reminds those of us who lived through it of the violence and vitriol. It informs those who didn't of the cruelty and struggles, integrating archival footage to document landmark moments. Each episode is a snapshot, an educational guide through a past that informs the present.
Based on the Washington Post's 2008 article by Wil Haygood on Eugene Allen, director Daniels moves from the Oval office to the dining room, the kitchen to the home with elegant fluidity. I applaud the endeavor for its comprehensive, intelligent presentation but also wish the film had more energy and drive, both sorely lacking in exchanges too restrained or calculated to convey meaning instead of being lived in. Similarly, the visuals sometimes lack crisp detail, and the sound contributes nothing unexpected or extraordinary.
There are several powerful scenes, notably Louis and others sitting at a whites-only lunch counter enduring racist insults and food thrown on them cross cut with Cecil serving an elegant, formal White House dinner. The assassinations of JFK and MLK are also handled well, the focus on the tragic events' devastating impact instead of reenactments, a wise choice.
As Cecil Gaines, Forest Whitaker brings his formidable presence and quiet charisma to the role. Oprah Winfrey, as his wife Gloria, must supply the counterpoint to Cecil's unwavering dedication. Winfrey is very good, her character too abbreviated in deference to the film's civil rights summary. Supporting actors add depth: Clarence Williams III, Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz. Some of the presidential portrayals seem just plain strange; but "Lee Daniels' The Butler," less imaginative and electrifying than I'd wished, delivers an essential reminder of our very recent racial history. Check local listings for theaters and times.