This film tells the story of eight presidential administrations through the eyes of a White House butler. From racism to America’s first black president, Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo explore this painful but ultimately powerful cinematic journey that no doubt will have Oscar buzzing.
4 Stars: Perfect for those who value their freedoms
In 2008, journalist Wil Haygood wrote an article for the Washington Post about a black butler named Eugene Allen who had spent 34 years working in the White House. This article inspired filmmaker Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy), to create a fictional account of this man’s life, renaming him Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) for the movie.
Growing up on a cotton farm with sharecropper parents, Cecil is exposed to extreme white-on-black violence from a young age when his mother Hattie (Mariah Carey) is raped by the white farm owner, Thomas (Alex Pettyfer). After Cecil’s father Earl (David Banner) attempts to stand up to Thomas, Thomas shoots him in the head. Cecil learns early on that challenging a white man is deadly.
The farm’s white matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) brings little Cecil into the “big house” and teaches him how to serve her white family while being as small, silent and invisible as possible. These are the skills Cecil masters and ultimately takes with him to the White House.
Now in Washington, D.C., Cecil’s wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is often angry and resentful that Cecil spends so much time at work, a place she is forbidden to visit. Feeling neglected and lonely, Gloria begins to drink.
Cecil’s two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley), are young adults just as the Civil Rights movement is gaining momentum. Louis goes off to college where he becomes a Freedom Rider and sits in at whites-only restaurant counters where the white staff refuses to serve him and his colleagues because of their ethnicity. Louis is often arrested for his civil disobedience, much to the frustration and fear of his father, causing a giant rift to form between the two.
The heavyheartedness of the film is occasionally lightened by some exciting and even curious cameos. It’s a joy to see Robin Williams play President Eisenhower, and Liev Schreiber makes a hilariously uptight Lyndon B. Johnson, summoning Cecil to bring him his prune juice while he’s on the toilet.
John Cusack plays the famously paranoid Nixon in a fake nose too distracting to enjoy his performance. Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda play the Reagans with verisimilitude but without making them into caricatures. James Marsden presents a grounded take on JFK while Minka Kelly lacks the iconic grace to fill Jackie O’s 125 pairs of shoes.
Forest Whitaker gives a brave performance as Cecil, who represses his inner fears in his quest to become invisible, at least until the latter part of his life. Oprah Winfrey sizzles with pent-up sexual frustration and boozy fits of anger and jealousy. While it’s difficult to forget you’re watching Lady O, her deep understanding of human nature makes her one of America’s best actresses. British actor David Oyelowo gives depth to Louis, a character that easily could have fallen into the realm of stereotype.
Gorgeous heartthrob Stephen Rider (Safe House, The Host) plays Admiral Rochon, who takes over as the next generation of help at Obama’s White House after Cecil’s departure. Admiral Rochon represents the new generation of black America: confident, educated and political, a character Rider fully embodies. Note to Hollywood: Stephen Rider is the next big thing — can we please give him an action film to star in?