Oprah Winfrey is great at everything. This is no news flash, but it’s as apparent as ever when watching “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”
Winfrey mesmerizes as the frustrated wife of a veteran White House butler (Forest Whitaker) in “The Butler,” a moving historical drama and acting showcase for its stars.
It’s Winfrey’s first big role since 1998’s “Beloved,” and she lends an intriguing complexity to her character, who quietly drinks too much and grows lonely after her husband stays late at work too often.
Winfrey could have kept acting — and racking up Oscar nominations like the one she received for her film debut in 1985’s “The Color Purple” — all this time. But she chose more direct paths to world domination.
Her performance highlights director Daniels’ deft way with actors and brilliant casting instinct — his work with Mo’Nique in his 2009 film “Precious” helped her earn a best supporting actress Oscar.
Winfrey’s powerhouse charisma could have overwhelmed her character, Gloria, a homemaker and mother who, as an African American female born in the early part of the 20th century, had even fewer opportunities than her husband. Instead, Winfrey’s strong screen presence breathes vivid life into this woman’s pain and triumphs. She is not just a footnote to her husband’s story, or to history.
The imposing Whitaker (an Academy Award winner for “The Last King of Scotland”) is an inspired choice to play someone whose livelihood depends on being unobtrusive. As Cecil, a character inspired by a real-life White House butler, Whitaker towers over everyone, including a few of the actors playing U.S. presidents. But Whitaker often makes himself seem smaller, by slumping his shoulders and having his character hang back until called for.
Cecil always follows instructions he has received, as a boy in still viciously segregated 1920s Georgia, from the mistress (Vanessa Redgrave, frail-looking but forceful as a slavery-days holdover) of the plantation where he was born. She tells Cecil that a house servant must be so subtle that the room should feel empty when he’s in it.
Outside the house, the South of Cecil’s youth holds dangers for any black man who dares look a white man in the eye. Cecil discovers this when his father is shot.
Cecil physically escapes the deep South, landing a job at a fancy Washington, D.C., hotel where he earns the notice of a White House staffer, and a job offer. But the lessons he learned in the South — keep his head down, never challenge white authority — stay with him. They’re evident in the pleasant mask he wears on duty at the White House.
From that nearly expressionless canvas, subtle wonders emerge. Cecil’s White House employment spans nearly 30 years and includes the crux of the civil rights movement. As Cecil serves tea and coffee, presidents from Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to Reagan (Alan Rickman) discuss race-related issues with advisers. Whitaker registers the butler’s emotional investment in these matters with minute displays of emotion, from slight hopefulness when progress seems likely, to resignation when it doesn’t.
A consummate professional, Cecil does not offer opinions unless asked. The presidents usually ask, because he becomes such an intimate part of their days.
Though filmed in New Orleans, “The Butler” captures the pomp of official White House dinners and camaraderie among “downstairs” staff members. (Cuba Gooding Jr. is hilarious as a fellow butler whose ribald humor cuts tension at big events.)
But the White House scenes, which present Cecil as a Forrest Gump-like figure with a front-row seat to Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War’s start and Watergate, lack the weight of scenes at Cecil’s home.
The White House scenes’ parade-of-stars casting (Jane Fonda — Hanoi Jane! — appears as Nancy Reagan) detracts from the storytelling. Also, we’ve already seen, in “Lincoln,” a White House-set film about civil rights that showcased white characters.
“The Butler” bests “Lincoln” when it focuses not on what white people think of African Americans’ rights, but what African Americans think. It shows how the civil rights movement causes strain within Cecil’s household. Cecil’s relationship with his activist son, Louis (a resolute David Oyelowo), is fraught with generational and ideological differences, and carries profound disappointment on both sides.
Louis accuses his father of being a white-man appeaser. Cecil thinks his son is unrealistic and ungrateful. Without Cecil’s middle-class income, Louis could not attend the private college where he met his fellow activists.
Whitaker flashes anger in the father-son scenes. It’s as if the son unleashes all Cecil’s pent-up resentment from a lifetime of holding his tongue. Louis doesn’t deserve such anger, but he stokes it as the person who challenges Cecil most directly about his life choices.
Cecil only truly loosens up when he’s with Gloria. Winfrey and Whitaker show the chemistry of a couple together for a while but still passionate for each other. Winfrey, who on her talk show displayed a benign asexuality befitting America’s life coach, is refreshingly raw here.
Not too raw, though. “The Butler” is rated PG-13, and Daniels’ direction benefits from the rating’s constraints. His previous two films, “Precious” and “The Paperboy,” were R-rated. “Precious” was lurid and powerful, “The Paperboy” just lurid. The more contained “Butler” shows Daniels need not shock to make an impact.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB