Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey lead an all-star cast in this emotionally charged story about White House butler Cecil Gaines, who pulls a Forest Gump – witnessing 30 years of American history.
“The Butler” is inspired by the life and times of Eugene Allen, a White House butler who served from 1952 to 1986. The story begins on a Georgia plantation where Cecil Gains (Whitaker), a fictional character, witnesses the murder of his father and the rape of his mother (Mariah Carey) at the hands of the plantation owner (Alex Pettyfer).
After his father’s murder, Gains is taken from the cotton fields to work in the plantation owner’s house as a servant. Fearing the same fate as his father, Gains leaves the plantation after several years and lands a job in a sophisticated Washington D.C. hotel. His elegance and charm do not go unnoticed, and Gains is asked to become a butler at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Gains demeanor and humility gains him the respect of his fellow staff members and the admiration of all the presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan.
However, Gains home life is another story. It is the turmoil at home that fuels the film. The relationship between Gains and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is tense, as she becomes frustrated over his dedication to the White House. Gloria drowns her dissatisfaction in booze and a brief affair with a womanizing neighbor (Terrance Howard). Gains sons (David Oyelowo and Elijah Kelley) are politically divided between the Civil Rights Movement, militancy and the Vietnam War – topics that rip the core of the Gains household. You know how it is. Having a kid in the Black Panthers doesn’t play well at the White House.
Whitaker and Winfrey are terrific and believable. Terrance Howard is wonderfully sleazy. Perhaps the film should have been released later in the year, so they’ll be remembered at Oscar time. I hope they are. “The Butler” does have its share of forgivable flaws, as the third act is predicable and a bit heavy-handed. But, hey, that’s Hollywood.
That being said, the historic motif of “The Butler” will definitely evoke an emotional response from moviegoers who experienced the Civil Rights Movement, Freedom Riders, Vietnam and the assassinations of Kennedy, King and Malcolm X. Younger moviegoers hopefully will be tempted to read more about tumultuous 1960s. Let’s hope so.
I will say that “The Butler” struck a strong emotional cord with me. I grew up during the politically charged ‘60s and ‘70s. And although my father wasn’t a butler, he was an Air Force Master Sargent, so you could imagine any conversation about the Black Panthers, civil disobedience and the Vietnam War were heated topics at our dinner table.
You would have to have been there.
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