Not quite like anything else in the history of political movies, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” bears witness to several decades in the White House — mostly taking the servants’ point of view.
Focusing on an African-American family, led by former hotel butler Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker) and his wife (Oprah Winfrey), Danny Strong’s script begins in 1924 Georgia and records the history of segregation from inside and outside several very different administrations.
Along the way we get glimpses of the 20th-century hypocrisies that allowed South African apartheid murders, racist wars, American lynchings and other Ku Klux Klan scare tactics.
The movie begins with a white man’s killing of young Cecil’s father — a powerful demonstration of the powerlessness of blacks who tried to say “no” to daily humiliations that often included rape of female family members.
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In the 1950s tradition of “cameo” appearances by special guest stars, the movie makes splendid use of John Cusack as Richard Nixon (slippery and literally shifty-eyed), James Marsden as JFK (impassioned and over his head) and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan (efficient and in control). Best of all is Alan Rickman, almost unrecognizable as a stubbornly befuddled Ronald Reagan.
Directed by Lee Daniels, who created one showy success (“Precious”) and one quirky flop (“The Paperboy”), the result is an uneven, sometimes stirring historical drama that can be both heavy-handed and enjoyably sly.
At its best, it uses the 1950s/1960s as “Mad Men” does: to illuminate the past by bringing it into focus, often as if for the very first time.
Even at its worst, it prefers to stimulate rather than launch another noisy parade of stereotypes.
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org