* * * ½
(Sweeping historical tale from the eyes of a black butler)
Director Lee Daniels has his name up front in this sweeping historical tale as seen through a black White House butler. Apparently, it wasn’t an egotistical gesture, but the fact that there was an earlier movie titled “The Butler.”
Forest Whitaker gives a brilliant performance as the “colored” man who rose from a southern cotton field where he saw his daddy murdered while his mother was being raped, to become a first class butler who ended up serving eight presidents.
Inspired by a true story, the movie’s title could have been “The Butler and His Son,” because the story is as much about his brave son’s participation in the Freedom Bus and Black Panther movement as it is about his relationships with the eight presidents he served.
The story is more about the effect that Cecil Gaines’ job had on his family than it is about his effect on the presidential office.
Beginning with the Eisenhower Administration and taking us right up to the election of Obama, the story is told in vignettes, using TV footage to track the long, hard-fought fight for justice and integration. Cecil is carefully taught to say nothing and never make eye contact, although he hears and sees plenty, and to act like he is not even in the room. The white politicians also act like he is not in the room.
While Cecil’s son is fighting for equality and getting arrested at every turn, and his wife (Oprah Winfrey) cares more about her house than the White House, Cecil remains a loyal servant to his presidents and his country. It is not until he is about to retire that he finally speaks up (in a much too contrived scene).
This is a movie about contrasts between blacks and whites, the haves and the have-nots, and the upstairs/downstairs doings in the White House. There are a number of poignant scenes, contrasted with the cold, calculating moments when politicians make decisions based more on getting elected than serving the people. This is a movie that should be shown to all high school and college students, most of who know little about those turbulent times.
A number of established actors do their best to portray the presidents: Robin Williams as Ike; John Cusack as Nixon; James Marsden as Kennedy; Alan Rickman as Reagan. Makeup people performed wonders in aging the actors. Most significant was Oprah Winfrey, who has had lots of experience with different hairdos and body sizes. She also gives a powerful performance as the wife of the butler, always struggling with keeping her family intact while dealing with an absentee husband and the excess of alcohol. David Oyelowo is outstanding as Cecil’s prodigal son, who shows more guts than his father.
This is not a perfect movie, but it is one that should be seen, not only for the lessons we should learn but also for some terrific acting.
Rated PG-13, with some actual newsreel footage of violence, profanity and the fact that just about everyone smoked back then.