Lee Daniels returns to the socially conscious world of awards darling, Precious, for a politically charged odyssey through 50 years of American history. Seen through the eyes of Cecil Gaines, White House butler to eight US presidents, Daniels chronicles every meaningful event that advanced race relations and civil rights in the 20th Century. From Gaines’ brutal childhood in Georgia’s cotton plantations, to the passing of the Civil Rights Act, all the way to Obama’s election win in 2008, The Butler uses Gaines’ own family as a microcosm of the USA’s racial struggles.
Cynics will be quick to point out the string of contrivances that see the Gaines family encounter everything from murderous slave-owners to Klan members, one son joins the Black Panthers while the other is drafted to fight in Vietnam. While Danny Strong’s screenplay is doubtless an oversimplification of a half-century – focusing solely on race-related tensions in a period rife with numerous socio-political problems – it is hard to fault the incredible cast Daniels has assembled.
Surrounding Forest Whitaker’s pillar of unwavering stoicism, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo, as Gaines’ wife and wayward older son, go toe-to-toe throughout, while Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz provide able support as fellow White House staffers. The real joy, both for viewers and participants, however, is the parade of A-listers who embody the various Presidents that colour Gaines’ life, from Robin Williams’ Eisenhower and James Marsden’s Kennedy, to John Cusack as Nixon and a fantastic turn by Alan Rickman as The Gipper himself, Ronald Reagan.
This review first appeared in Cathay Pacific’s Discovery Magazine, January 2014