'The Butler' spans terms of seven U.S. presidents

August 29, 2013 

>At times Lee Daniel's "The Butler" felt like the African-American answer to "Forrest Gump." In the span of two hours we run through nearly 30 years, 7 different Presidents and moments in African American history – Southern segregation, the civil rights movement, apartheid in South Africa. It's an ambitious project for Daniel's, whose two previous films were "Precious" and "The Paperboy."

Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, born on a plantation in Georgia in the early 1920s. As a boy he witnesses the rape of his mother (Mariah Carey) and the murder of his father. He's brought in to work in the house by the plantation's matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) and quickly escapes when he turns 18. He ends up working in hotels in D.C. before moving into the White House under the Truman administration. Truman is followed by Eisenhower (Robin Williams), JFK (James Marsden), Lyndon Johnson (Live Schreiber), Richard Nixon (John Cusack), Ford and Carter (as seen in various news clips), and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman).

He begins a family with Gloria (Oprah Winfrey); their two boys Charlie and Louis are polar opposites. Charlie (Elijah Kelley) takes after his father, he is dutiful and disciplined. Louis (David Oyelowo) is rebellious and subversive. While Charlie enlists in Vietnam, Louis is fighting in the civil rights movement. The relationship between Cecil and his family is fascinating. The contentious Gloria takes out her frustration by hitting the bottle and sleeping around. Oprah Winfrey is powerful; she will surely be seen come awards season. Louis and Charlie demonstrate the complexity of the civil rights movement without being too heavy handed.

The picture painted at home is much more interesting and effective than what is shown at the White House. The Presidential cameos are star studded but short and lacking emotional weight. The irony of Reagan's kindness to Cecil and support of apartheid in South Africa is striking but largely untouched. Although there are a number of missed opportunities, the Gaines family is provocative and powerful and makes the film a worthy viewing.

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