Directed by: Lee Daniels
This film is a historical drama with an ensemble cast that was Inspired by the real-life account of Eugene Allen, an African-American who an eyewitnesses to many notable U.S. events that occurred during the 20th Century during his 34-year tenure serving as a White House butler. The film stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, who serves as a fictionalized version of Allen during the terms of eight presidents, from Eisenhower to Regan, as his life traces the dramatic changes that swept American society during this time. We get to see everything through the eyes of Gaines and his family, from the civil rights movement to Vietnam and beyond, and how those changes affected this man's life and family.
When we first meet Gains he is the son of a sharecropper plantation worker. While he does have loving parents, that life is quickly shattered when the plantation owner casually leads Gains mother (Carey) off to a shed to rape her. When the plantation owner emerges from the shed Gains’ father seeks to challenge him only to be shot and killed. It is at this point that the woman in charge of the plantation (Vanessa Redgrave) takes pity on him and makes him a houseboy, the beginning of his life-long career as a domestic. After serving for a number of years in the house, Gains leaves to get a better job. This leads him to work in a hotel, which leads to him working in a fancier hotel in Washington D.C.
It is from there that Gains comes to the attention of a man who heads up staff for the White House and begins her service there. From here the rest of the film is essentially a Forrest Gump-like stroll through the latter half of the 20th Century as we witness virtually every significant civil Rights moment through the eyes of Gains, his wife (Winfrey), and his two children Louis (David Oyelowo) who becomes a Freedom Rider, Black Panther, and eventually a Congressman, and Charlie (Elijah Kelley) who enlists and goes off to serve his country in Vietnam.
The film, with its star-studded ensemble cast is both layered and nuanced in its portrayal of how horribly we in this country have treated have treated our citizens. While it may be easy for some to look at the world today and attempt to dismiss the lingering undercurrent of racism in this country one only needs to look back at the recent history of our land to see that it is far too premature to claim that it still doesn’t exist. Less than 50 years ago there were still Jim Crow (“White Only”) laws in this country, and now we have an African American President. Certainly we have come quite a ways as a nation, but the truth of the matter is that those deep-seated racial hatreds and prejudices die hard, and we will still be battling them for some time to come. Honestly it is an embarrassment as to how some parts of our society have been treated based on the hatred of those that preceded us. This is a powerful film and should be seen.
Robert J. Sodaro has been reviewing films for some 30 years. During that time, his movie reviews and articles have appeared in numerous print publications, as well as on the web. Subscribe to receive regular articles and movie reviews.