In the wake of the George Zimmerman trial, you couldn’t ask for a better movie — or, I should say, movies — to help carve out a common understanding of the racial divide. No matter how one feels about Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman decision, Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station delivered an airtight version of the same story with the same tragic end — the main difference being that the shooting took place before an audience of cellphone cameras, leaving no room for conjecture as to what happened between two men in the dark. But also, and more to the point, that “based on real events” docudrama eloquently tapped into the plight of the young black man struggling to succeed in a society reticent to give him a fair shake.

To underscore that, and for anyone who’s of the mindset that we’re beyond the civil rights movement and that opportunity is out there for all on equal terms, sit through Lee Daniels’ The Butler and see if you still feel that way.

Perhaps the best way to describe The Butler is “a short painful history of the black man in America.” The film centers on one man who for all intents and purposes grew up a slave in the early part of the 1900s and went on to serve eight presidents as a staff server in the White House.

True, slavery was abolished under Lincoln in the mid-1800s, but on the Georgia cotton plantation where Cecil Gaines was raised, the emancipated laborers were still treated as little more than disposable property. As a boy, Cecil witnesses his mother pulled from the field and hauled into a shed for a brief brutal interlude with a scowling plantation owner, and later Cecil’s father is given a bullet to the head for protesting the rape of his wife.

There are several atrocities that percolate throughout The Butler, even after Cecil (Forest Whitaker) has relocated his family farther north and begun his tenure under Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams). As much of an opportunity as working in the White House would seem, Cecil has a stormy house to contend with. His wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey, acting for the first time in over a decade) is an alcoholic and carries on an inappropriate relationship with the smooth soothsayer next door (Terrence Howard), while Cecil’s eldest son Lucas (David Oyelowo) disagrees with his dad’s don’t-rock-the-boat stance and becomes an outspoken political activist. During the civil rights movement, he’s arrested repeatedly for riding on the Freedom Bus, gets into a tangle with the Klan, and later syncs up with the Black Panthers.

The Butler sails effortlessly through time, chronicling the evolution of the country and Cecil’s family. Under each new administration Cecil gets his one magic moment with the president, including Kennedy (James Marsden, getting a passing grade on the accent) who asks him about his son and his activities. The conversation, as the film has it, goes on to have some small effect in Kennedy’s push for civil rights. If you’re rolling your eyes a little, you’d be forgiven — Cecil Gaines is a fictionalized representation of Eugene Allen, who really did serve eight presidents. Still, for all its contrivances, The Butler is an interesting and compelling conveyance of American history through the eyes of one man on whom every social movement has a profound impact, and it’s purposefully staged (perhaps too much so) with Cecil on the inside and Lucas, with his rebel yell, on the counter-culture fringe.

Daniels’ directing and Danny Strong’s script are often heavy-handed, but the film still works because of Winfrey and Whitaker. The two are superb as people drawn together and pulled apart, over and over through the years, by politics, work, addiction, and ideals. They’re supported by an outstanding ensemble cast that includes Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, and Jane Fonda, who kills it as Nancy Reagan.

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