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Film Review – The Butler

3 min read

The Butler, directed by Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy), tells the story of Cecil Gaines who started life on a plantation and grew up to be a butler in the Whitehouse for decades serving 8 presidential administrations. It has a star-studded cast with Forest Whitaker starring as Cecil Gaines, and Oprah Winfrey as his wife Gloria in her first major acting role in years. The extensive supporting cast boasts many of the most respected actors today like Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Vanessa Redgrave.

After a difficult journey getting there, Cecil’s job as Whitehouse butler places him firmly in the middle class, where he and wife Gloria (Winfrey) raise their two sons. The story then parallels Cecil’s own life with that of his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo), who joins the civil rights movement and eventually ends up as Black Panther. Though it is “inspired” by a true story, it is essentially fiction, and is simply a good mechanism which allows the filmmakers to place the characters to witness, or be a part of, nearly every major milestone (or setback) in the civil rights movement in the 20th century.  The generational differences between Cecil and his son are highlighted, with Cecil resigned to his subservient role as a silent witness while Louis becomes deeply involved in the movement and the generational gap drives a wedge between them that is eventually resolved.  The film is, at times, very candid about the treatment of black Americans and sometimes uncomfortable to watch, but it isn’t only about that. It is also a film about a man raising his family in middle-America, and how a very different upbringing can shape the core values and beliefs of a father and son so differently.


Forest Whitaker is excellent as Cecil, and he doesn’t just act the role, he becomes it. He physically looks like a different man, and I don’t think it was makeup or prosthetics, but the work of a very talented actor who can not only emote very well, but also carefully control his physical being. Oprah Winfrey is fantastic as Gloria Gaines in that she successfully sheds her massive Oprah persona to become the character, which is frequently unflattering.  There are many spot-on portrayals of prominent historical characters like Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda), Ronald Reagan ( Alan Rickman), Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams), JFK (James Marsden), Richard Nixon (John Cusack) and especially the foul-mouthed, prune juice swilling LBJ played by Liev Schreiber.

The Butler ends with the election of Barak Obama in 2008, after Cecil has retired and the world is a considerably different place. In the end it takes an optimistic view which I think is a fair ending to a film that was at times a little heavy-handed, but still moving, and with such a talented cast definitely worth seeing.

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