Forest Whitaker guides Lee Daniels’ The Butler with one of the most tender, affecting performances of the year. He plays Cecil Gaines, a butler in the White House who served under eight presidents for around thirty years. He lived a tough childhood, witnessing his father being murdered in a cotton field and being homeless for a long while. When he’s brought in to work at a hotel, someone from the White House notices him and offers him a position there. Cecil is a humble man, one who generally agrees with the established order because he hasn’t been given much of a choice. He’s lived a difficult life, but given the stability he now has with his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and his children, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charles (Elijah Kelley), he holds onto that. It leads to tension with Louis, who begins to join the Freedom Riders and Black Panther movement as he fights for civil rights. Cecil observes silently.

The film’s observations delve heavily into race, which is refreshing given how often films of this sprawling nature glide over important themes. There’s a complexity within every exchange in the film, often times with the presidents that move in and out of Cecil’s narrative. Eisenhower, played rather well by Robin Williams, seems to care about advancing rights, and there’s a telling scene when he attempts to have a conversation with Cecil. It’s interrupted by work. JFK (James Marsden) starts as a man divided by where politics should take him, but he’s disgusted by the human nature on display. In a scene before his death, he talks with Cecil about how his heart has changed. It’s interesting that Cecil rarely interacts with these presidents as they go on about race and how it affects people; little do they know the impact it has had on Cecil’s life.

Lee Daniels ensures that the film’s unrelenting in its examination of racial injustices during the 1960s onward. One of the film’s most telling scenes involves Cecil encountering Louis after his 30-day arrest for protesting. The hallway’s lighting heightens the impressive filmmaking on display; Cecil drinks from the colored fountain, which is smaller than the white’s, as he’s talking with his son who’s standing there next to him. Cecil is devoted to being silent and submissive, even though he’s strong as we learn late in the film. Whitaker executes that masterfully, showcasing a remarkably poignant performance. He’s surrounded by a film that can be manipulative, but remains convincing and moving because of the layered supporting performances and an understanding of the impact this story has on civil rights.

Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)

Written by Eric Forthun