As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect this man's life, family, and American society.
An aspiring author during the civil rights movement of the 1960s decides to write a book detailing the African-American maids' point of view on the white families for which they work, and the hardships they go through on a daily basis.
A motorcycle stunt rider turns to robbing banks as a way to provide for his lover and their newborn child, a decision that puts him on a collision course with an ambitious rookie cop navigating a department ruled by a corrupt detective.
In New York City's Harlem circa 1987, an overweight, abused, illiterate teen who is pregnant with her second child is invited to enroll in an alternative school in hopes that her life can head in a new direction.
Cecil Gaines was a sharecropper's son who grew up in the 1920s as a domestic servant for the white family who casually destroyed his. Eventually striking out on his own, Cecil becomes a hotel valet of such efficiency and discreteness in the 1950s that he becomes a butler in the White House itself. There, Cecil would serve numerous US Presidents over the decades as a passive witness of history with the American Civil Rights Movement gaining momentum even as his family has troubles of its own. As his wife, Gloria, struggles with her addictions and his defiant eldest son, Louis, strives for a just world, Cecil must decide whether he should take action in his own way. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (email@example.com)
The Butler starts off as an intriguing personal biopic about a man many
people have never heard of, but it soon finds itself lost among a
steadily growing political agenda with nothing interesting going on as
far as story is concerned. It plays out like a lame TV movie, and
probably would have been a lot more interesting as a miniseries.
Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) was a butler in the White House who
served under eight Presidents of the United States. The film sheds
light on his story, his family issues and his involvement in the Civil
The most important flaw of this film is that its main character is
really not all that interesting. It's cool that he worked for so many
presidents, in such an important time in our country's history, but
there's really not a lot to him other than that. His family members are
far more interesting, with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) being a lazy
alcoholic who turned her life around as she grew older, and his son
Louis (David Oyelowo) who helped fight in the Civil Rights Movement.
They make a point early on that Cecil is not a political person, and
tried to distance himself as much as he could so as not to cause any
problems. This means that he spends pretty much the entire film just
watching other people argue politics.
What worried me the most about this film before seeing it ended up
being everything I enjoyed the most about it. Oprah Winfrey's
performance, I hate to admit, is really great. People have been talking
Oscar nomination and she honestly deserves it. I was also surprised at
how well each of the presidents were played, despite some of the most
bizarre miscasting I've ever seen. Robin Williams as Eisenhower? Alan
freaking Rickman as Ronald freaking Reagan? Why would you EVER think
that's a good idea? Well, it worked. They each did a very decent job
with what they were needed to do. The problem with this, and the reason
they each might have been deceptively competent, is that none of them
get more than five minutes of screen time each in the film's run.
I also should point out that, while John Cusack did a really good job
playing Richard Nixon, every single time he was on screen the audience
busted out laughing. It was a testament to how poorly miscast everyone
was, because we all know John Cusack and he just isn't right for Nixon.
The only president that was anything close to well-cast was James
Marsden as Kennedy, who also happened to be one of the major highlights
of the film.
But then you have to look at the politics of the film, which are
blatant, unnecessary and frankly inaccurate. Every Democratic president
is portrayed as a god among men, whose heart is bigger than the average
racist white man, which is every non-black extra in the film. Lyndon
Johnson (Liev Schreiber) is shown as a flawed but empathetic man who
really cared about the Civil Rights Movement, despite being one of the
biggest racists ever to sit in the Oval Office; a man who allegedly but
infamously stated on signing the Civil Rights Act that, "I'll have
these n****rs voting Democrat for the next two-hundred years." Yep,
let's promote him as deeply caring about the movement.
Meanwhile, the Republicans are each shown as stupid, angry white people
who only care about the political ramifications of the movement. The
only real scene Ronald Reagan is given is him telling Cecil that he
thinks he's on the wrong side of Civil Rights because he cut off
sanctions to Africa. I won't even get into why that's misleading and
deceptive because what matters is the politics of the situation.
The end of the film shows Cecil in 2008, promoting Barack Obama for
president. The whole last five minutes or so are devoted to how great
it was that Barack Obama was going to be president. Not just that it
was a black man, but that it was Barack Obama specifically. The very
last thing you hear in the film is Obama's 2008 campaign slogan, "Yes
We Can," completely out of context.
I get it, okay? I understand exactly how incredible and important it
was that a black man became president. But that's not what's going on
in this movie and that's my biggest point about the whole film. If you
want to tell this story, it needs to be from the human rights
perspective, not a bias, liberal agenda, Progressive political
perspective. And I'd say that doing it this way takes away from the
interesting story at hand, but there wasn't really that interesting of
a story in the first place. What you end up with is a simple, shallow,
hollow film with nothing to actually say other than, "How great is it
that we've come from segregation to putting Barack Obama (not just any
black man, but THAT one) in the White House?"
EDIT: I've been reading a lot of interesting fact about the real "Cecil
Gaines," whose real name was Eugene Allen. The more and more I read,
the more infuriated I am about this film. In short, the movie
intentionally fabricates facts to make white people seem more racist
than they actually were, and to make Eugene Allen's life very
different. It's offensive to Allen's family. It's offensive to the
White House. But most importantly, it's offensive to the Civil Rights
I have also changed my rating to reflect my new feelings on the film.
Ever since I wrote this review I've been feeling as if I wasn't hard
enough on the film, so this isn't a new decision.
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