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The Butler

Jan 2014


Looking to the future: Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker

Fight for freedomA stellar ensemble cast delivers a powerful retelling of America’s civil-rights mov...ement in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, writes James MarshAfter the success of his socially conscious awards-winner, Precious, director Lee Daniels returns for a politically charged odyssey through 50 years of American history. Told through the eyes of Cecil Gaines, White House butler to eight United States presidents, Daniels chronicles every meaningful event that advanced race relations and civil rights in the 20th century. From the character’s brutal childhood in Georgia’s cotton plantations, to the passing of the Civil Rights Act, all the way to Barack Obama’s win in 2008, The Butler uses Gaines’ own family as a microcosm of America’s racial struggles. Cynics will be quick to point out the string of contrivances that befalls the Gaines family. They encounter everything from murderous slave-owners to Ku Klux Klan members. And when one son joins the Black Panthers, the other is drafted to fight in Vietnam. Danny Strong’s screenplay is doubtless an oversimplification of half a century – focusing solely on race-related tensions in a period rife with numerous socio-political problems – but the result is still powerful, thanks in no small part to the incredible cast Daniels has assembled. Surrounding Forest Whitaker’s pillar of unwavering stoicism as the faithful butler, Oprah Winfrey plays Gaines’ wife, David Oyelowo is the wayward older son, while Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz provide able support as fellow White House staffers. The real joy, 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, Ronald Reagan.