Cecil Gaines, played sincerely and emotively by Forest Whitaker, grew up on a farm, working for a brutal white family who shot his father dead in front of his very eyes. Eventually seeking employment elsewhere, he soon lands a job as a respectable hotel valet, building a reputation for himself as one of the most trustworthy, efficient waiters in Washington. He is then offered a job as a butler in the White House – a job offer which he accepts wholeheartedly, hoping to provide for his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and two sons Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley). However the former, and eldest of the two, causes his father much distress when he becomes embroiled in the Civil Rights Movement, joining forces with the Black Panthers. While Cecil faces issues on the home front, at work he serves eight different presidents across his 34 year tenure, experiencing some of the most important moments in the nations’ history first hand.
Though Daniels can be accused of covering too much ground – following a protagonist who lived such a rich life that certain moments seem lost in the story, such as Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War, or the apartheid regime for example, in his defence, we are seeing the world from the perspective of a man who isn’t politically minded and someone who deliberately disregards these issues. So to some extent the shirking of such matters seems somewhat justified, even if it does feel a little by the numbers. Where Daniels does come under scrutiny, however, is within the inconsistent tone and shifting of style. The approach taken damages the film somewhat, as to begin with it’s harrowing and cold, as within moments we see two bodies hanging. It’s a powerful and disturbing image and puts us in a certain frame of mind, but it’s not a sentiment Daniels remains faithful to. As the film progresses it grows to become somewhat light and fluffy in parts, becoming more of a mainstream, daytime drama of sorts, epitomised in the inclusion of the comedic younger brother Charlie.
Nonetheless, it’s fascinating how we see everything from Cecil’s perspective, and we don’t see any conversations between the various presidents that he isn’t in the room to hear. He also only ever stays for a matter of seconds too, so we are limited to mere snippets, left to piece it together ourselves. Whitaker is so absorbing as our lead, in a real tour-de-force performance for the actor. He manages to authentically portray both the vitality of the young, opportunist butler, to the well-versed, fatigued elderly man who ends this production, both with such sincerity. He is blessed with a very well crafted role, as Cecil’s flaws and imperfections are there for all to see, mostly coming in his conflict with his radical son Louis. Cecil has too much inherent loyalty to his employers, turning a blind eye to various wrongdoings for the sake of his livelihood.
In the meantime, there are some increasingly distracting cameo performances from those portraying the varying presidents. The realism is detracted somewhat when the superstars get needlessly involved, with the likes of Alan Rickman, Robin Williams and John Cusack all starring. You get the impression these actors were hired for their names, rather than actually finding the perfect cast. Such decisions highlight the frustratingly unsubtle nature to this picture, that can be accused of being emotionally manipulative in parts. That being said, take tissues, because dammit it works.