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History through the eyes of an extraordinary butler

Lapacazo Sandoval | 8/15/2013, 10:29 a.m. | Updated on 8/15/2013, 10:29 a.m.
Forest Cuba Butler

Lee Daniels, the director of “Precious” and “The Paperboy,” keeps his legacy growing with "The Butler,” a sweeping, highly fictionalized biopic about real longtime White House butler Eugene Allen.

It also smartly positions itself as a panoramic snapshot of the African-American experience across nine decades. The film stars Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker in the title role as butler Cecil Gaines, based on Allen. Gaines is a stoic witness to civil rights history; his humble beginnings in the cruel cotton fields of racist Georgia (circa 1920s) eventually lead him to the White House, where he silently and gracefully serves eight presidents.

Media mogul Oprah Winfrey does an impressive turn as his wife, Gloria, an unhappy woman who’s caught in the restrictions of her generation. Frustrated, she tries to find solace in the bottom of a bottle and in the arms of a family friend, played by Terrence Howard, a low-level numbers runner of questionable moral fiber.

Their eldest son, Louis, acted with complexity by David Oyelowo, follows a much different direction through the civil rights struggle, opting to risk his life for justice. This daring stance, in the face of almost certain death, locks him in conflict with his father.

The strong supporting cast also includes Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda and Robin Williams, among others.

What’s impressive and effective is a look at a recent history through the eyes of a humble man just happy to provide for his family.

The attention to details may remind some of “The Remains of the Day.” The dramatic turns of history keep the story building, and Gaines stays perfectly calm despite always being in the eye of a wicked storm.

His tenure alone spans riots, lunch counter sit-ins, marches to end segregation, the anti-Apartheid movement and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Screenwriter Danny Strong (“Game Change”) worked closely with Daniels to keep the tone on point as each segment of history unfolded in the family drama. While “Forrest Gump” utilized historical personages in archival footage, “The Butler” relied on the skill of the actors to transform themselves into the former presidents and first ladies. The result is achieved with such stunning realism that the mind’s eye does not question Williams’ Eisenhower; Rickman’s Reagan; John Cusack’s Nixon, aka “Tricky Dickie”; Liev Schreiber’s terrifying LBJ or James Marsden’s wounded and sentimental JFK.

Gaines is a challenging role, but Whitaker is one of the greatest thespians of our time. His performance stays under the skin; you can almost hear the soft voice of Nina Simone singing, “I have a spell on you, and you’re mine” in his sublime performance. Expect to see his name in the “Best” categories of many awards this coming season.

In her first live-action dramatic role since 1998’s “Beloved,” Winfrey clearly demonstrates that she’s been paying attention to the art of acting. I would not be surprised if she earns a Best Actress in a Supporting Role nomination from the Academy.