“The Butler” covers quite a bit of history in a little over two hours for a film that follows the life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) as a White House butler. As a teenager, he leaves the Georgia cotton farm where he grew up with his parents after his father is shot by the owner and after he is taught how to serve in the house versus working in the fields.
His dedication to both his work and his family allows him an opportunity to work at a fancy DC hotel and then be summoned to the White House as the butler on staff. His long hours are hard on his alcoholic-than-sobering wife (Oprah Winfrey) and sons Charlie and Louis (David Oyelowo), but his vision is to give his children better opportunities than he had growing up makes him perfect his position.
The older of the boys, Louis, grows up to attend Fisk University in Tennessee where he becomes a Freedom Rider and ultimately, a Black Panther during the Civil Rights Movement. The younger of the two at first wants to follow closer in his father’s footsteps, but instead when he is of age, decides to go fight in Vietnam.
Setting the scene is this prolific and intense time in American history. Director Lee Daniels did an exceptional job moving from one presidency to the next, one time period, one change in history without clunky transitions or parts that slowed the film. However, the heart of the story is the relationship between Cecil and his family, specifically Louis.
The opposing viewpoints from Cecil and Louis regarding civil rights and what it means to live freely in the world versus merely existing in a place where another person lives has a lot of depth and emotion. Even taking away the time frame of the movie, the conflicts that arise from battles between the idealism of a young adult and the obedience (or cynicism) of a seasoned parent can ring familiar for any family.
It’s fun to see the portrayal of different historical figures from Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower to Alan Rickman as a caricature of Ronald Reagan. What happened during their tenures as POTUS is captured in movie moments and it makes you want to revisit those times and learn more about the history of our country that may have been glossed over or ignored when learning about it in school.
Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz are both bright spots in the film as well as White House staff who work beside Cecil as well. Their characters add humor and lightness to what is otherwise a mainly heavy movie.
“The Butler” is a job well done but focuses less on the butler himself but more of what is going on around him during his time at the White House. It is the change that is occurring outside of the walls he is working, and eventually it reveals the change he experiences as well.
Final words: It’s an entertaining time travel through a trying time in America addressing issues that are still alive today as quiet reminder in the back of your head.