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Published October 16, 2013

Cecil Gains loyally served as butler in the White House to every American president from Eisenhower to Reagan (from 1957 – 1980s), but in his biopic The Butler, for once Cecil takes the limelight. Well actually, even in the White House, the life of a butler isn’t too exciting; but as a black man born as a cotton picker, we see all the big milestones of the civil rights movement unfold before Cecil’s eyes.

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Unlike other films about civil rights, which put you right in the action with victims or the activists, Cecil Gains is decidedly not-political. His job depends on serving his white-bosses’ every need, and never arguing or speaking his mind. He sees the protesters, even his own son Louis, as hooligans and criminals, and a large part of the film deals with their falling out.

The butler makes for a frustrating protagonist; by trying so hard to fit his role as servant (to white bosses who can be racist or indifferent), it often seems like he’s resisting social change. But perhaps in that way the film captures the struggle perfectly. As absurd as having a ‘white’ restroom and a separate ‘black’ one seems today, by retelling the civil rights movement through humble Cecil’s eyes we are shown how difficult it is for everyday people to challenge the status quo.

The film stars (the always excellent and surprisingly slim) Forrest Whitaker as the butler, with a host of stars supporting him, including Oprah Winfrey as his wife, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as co-workers, and Mariah Carey (briefly) as his mother. And be prepared for some surprisingly cast presidents as well, with John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, and Robin Williams as President Eisenhower.

Director Lee Daniels says that he had “never seen a film that chronicled the civil rights movement, from the beginning into the Obama administration, through the eyes of a father and son.” The Butler succeeds in telling this story, contrasting the subservient butler and his son, who ends up going to Malcolm X and then the Black Panthers.

The Butler really sucks you into the human rights movement, for example: the scenes where Louis Gains is being attacked by southerners for sitting in the ‘whites only’ cafe or just for ‘freedom running’ across state by bus are especially tense. Naturally the film is filled with historical inaccuracies, but it’s a great dramatic retelling of the civil rights movement; taking you from a cotton field where a black man is shot without consequence, to Cecil rising as high as a servant could rise, to a day when a black man can be President himself.

WHO

Directed by Lee Daniels, written by Danny Strong and starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, and David Oyelowo.

WHAT

Biopic retelling of the American civil rights movement.

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