There are more terrific black actors in Hollywood than there are good roles they might actually land. The Butler
creates an open, freeing space for lots of these performers. Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Yaya Alafia: Everybody's good, especially Oprah Winfrey. Stylistically, The Butler
-- a mini-history of late 20th-century black America as seen through the eyes of a White House domestic worker played by Forest Whitaker-- could have been made 30 years ago, but its time is now. It opens, inauspiciously, with stiff voiceover: Whitaker's character, Cecil Gaines, tells the story of his childhood picking cotton in 1920s Georgia. The plantation owner's son rapes Cecil's mother (Mariah Carey) and murders his father (David Banner); as grudging recompense, the family matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) invites Cecil into the big house to train as a domestic servant. This changes Cecil's life, and he later earns a slot as a butler at the White House, where he serves under eight presidents, beginning with Robin Williams’s Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Others are played by James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, and Alan Rickman, all impeccably cast.) Cecil is happy enough in his line of work, which allows him to support his kids and his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey). But his elder son, Louis (David Oyelowo), chafes under the status quo, eventually joining the Black Panthers. You could call that a basic generation-gap screenwriting contrivance, or you could call it a smart way to dramatize turmoil and change. Director Lee Daniels re-creates some of the most horrific images of the civil rights era, including those of young black protesters blasted with firehoses. But his approach is, for the most part, more personal than instructional.
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