lee-daniels-butler“You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve.”

Those are the words of advice given to former planation worker Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), on his first day as a butler at the White House. For the next three decades he was a witness to history, serving eight presidents from Truman to Reagan, during the stormiest days of America’s history.

His job is to be invisible and leave ideology at home—“We have no tolerance for politics at the White House,” he’s told—but in his subsequent years of service he became a quietly potent force within the halls of power, touching the hearts of the Kennedy’s and fighting for wage equality for African-American workers in the nation’s Executive Mansion.

Very loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, the movie is an intergenerational story of big moments from a time filled with big moments.

The overall timeline will be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched the History Channel, but “The Butler” recounts the turbulent times through one man’s deeply divided family, bringing the story home with simple, first person storytelling.

Gaines sees nothing and hears nothing at work, but his son Louis (David Oyelowo) is a socially engaged student, who first becomes involved with the Freedom Riders and later with the Black Panthers. Father and son don’t see eye-to-eye despite mother Gloria’s (Oprah Winfrey) best efforts to unite them.

At the center of “the Butler” are two remarkable performances that temper the film’s tendency to veer into melodrama.

Forest Whitaker is a dignified presence throughout in a quiet performance that allows the character’s inner life to shine through. It’s all about the details. The way he strokes the tie Jackie Kennedy gave him after JFK’s assassination. The pained looked in his eye as he kicks his son out of the White House. They are small moments that cut through the movie’s sweeping story, keeping the whole thing grounded.

As Louis English actor David Oyelowo plays every scene with intensity, but never goes over the edge. His Louis is a committed man, a thinker who deeply believes in the Civil Rights movement, but refuses to blindly accept dogma.

Much of the casting of the presidents—Robin Williams as President Dwight D. Eisenhower, James Marsden as President John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as President Lyndon B. Johnson, John Cusack as President Richard Nixon and Alan Rickman as President Ronald Reagan—feels like stunt casting, but the story isn’t their to tell. Director Lee “Precious” Daniels wisely keeps the focus on Gaines and family to tell the tale.

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (the name was changed from “The Butler” when Warner Bros. sued, claiming they already owned the name) is a handsome movie, the kind that gets the attention of the Academy, which serves as a poignant reminder of the difficult and rocky road so many walked in the search of racial equality.