After a summer of block-buster sci-fi/action adventure films I was ready for something with a bit more big-screen bite and this was the ticket. It is very loosely based on a true story about a butler (Cecil Gaines) who served through eight presidents in the White House. It chronicles about 75 years of his life from a 1920’s Georgia Plantation to about 2009. The director Lee Daniels (Monster’s Ball) said he started out to tell a good story but wound up making a civil rights film because of the pivotal role the events played in the lead character’s story.

Cecil Gaines (Played by Forest Whitaker) ended his career with distinction and honor, but began it quite differently as the son of cotton picker in rural 1920’s Georgia, who witnesses the cold-blooded rape of his mother and the murder of his father on the same day. Gaines leaves the plantation at the first opportunity to make his way in the world. Through a series of events he is invited to work in the White House where he spends the next 34 years as a servant and eyewitness to behind-the-scenes of some of our most iconic presidents.

Forest Whitaker plays the role of Gaines with sincerity, gentleness and complexity and shows us again what acting excellence looks like. As Gaines he must grapple with the mission of carrying out his position’s responsibilities with dignity as his own family is directly affected by events beyond his control. Gaines takes pride in his position - one that comes with the prestige of working directly for the president of the United States. But, these are the turbulent sixties ripe with the civil unrest of a black South taking its stand against injustice, and the America Cecil knew is undergoing a metamorphosis with his eldest son Louis, (David Oyelowo) front-and-center at the events.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler boasts an ensemble cast of notable Hollywood veterans; Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Robin Williams, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Oprah Winfrey, and Liev Schreiber. While most of these actors have done some very good work I had to say “Seriously?” when I saw some of the actors cast as a president. Most of them were barely believable and came across as one-dimensional caricatures of the men they portrayed. Thank goodness for the refreshing David Oyelowo (Planet of the Apes), the classically trained Brit who is one of Hollywood’s most sought after actors. Oyelowo proved again his deep reservoir of talent playing Gaines’ oldest son from a teenager to midlife.  Oprah Winfrey takes off the media mogul uniform long enough to play Gaine’s lonely, boozing wife who’s proud of her husband’s job, but disdainful of his long hours away from home.  Oprah is such cultural wallpaper that it’s often easy to forget she’s also a pretty good actress. It was great fun to see Lenny Kravitz (Hunger Games) broadening his acting repertoire as one of Gaines’ co-workers. 

But, the actor who caught me most off guard was Mariah Carey (deglamorized beyond recognition) as the victimized mother of Gaines. Her character doesn’t say much but Carey does it creditably enough for you to forget who she is and be drawn in by the tragedy of her life. While the movie was heavy in big names and some solid performances, this film still belonged to Whitaker. Forest Whitaker won an Oscar for the part of the brutal dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland”, and I’d be surprised if he was not nominated again for the role of Gaines.

This film was very loosely based on the real life of White House butler Eugene Allen. Script writer, Danny Strong used the book “The Butler a Witness to History” by Wil Haygood as his material. He focused on Eugene’s story but confessed to incorporating a composite of other accounts from various White House butlers. Thankfully, a good deal of it is factual and the most interesting scenes where Gaines interacted with a president actually happened. The release of this movie aptly coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Martin Luther King’s iconic “I had a Dream” speech. But, no matter how it blurs the lines between truth and fiction; the story is still a testament to the strength of one person to take life’s challenges and forge a pathway of courage to inspire us all.

This is not the first film of its kind and it could have come across as a quasi civil rights docudrama had it not been for the superb acting ability of Whitaker. It was tough-watching in some places and slows in others; but it had just enough storyline, characters and interesting presidential moments to redeem its entertainment value making it a film to go see. I have only one question - what in the world made them cast Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan?

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  1. Enjoyable film but tough in some places due to civil rights stuff. Thanks for posting!

  2. Thanks Carol, awesome job! I forwarded this to many of my friends.

  3. Thanks so much John, I really appreciate your support!

  4. Beautifully written, Carol. I'm going to go see this film!
    Wendy Davis

  5. Thanks Wendy. What a pleasure to see your name too!


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