LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) -- THV 11 Film Critic Jonathan Nettles reviews Lee Daniels' The Butlers.
Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, one of the many African American butlers in the White House who witnesses much of the Civil Rights movement while serving coffee and tea to 8 U.S. Presidents from 1957 to 1986 in Lee Daniels' The Butler. His wife is played by Oprah Winfrey, who does a pretty good job in the role. She's mostly in a supporting role but offers enough to make it interesting. She does well as the matriarch who takes a backseat along with the rest of the Gaines family to Cecil's seemingly endless duties at the White House while battling an addiction to alcohol and a brief affair with a neighbor who is played by Terrance Howard. The Gaines have two sons, the eldest, Charlie (David Oyelowo) grows up with the desire ot become an activist in the Civil Rights movement and eventually joining in sit-ins in Tennessee, becoming a Freedom Rider, joining the Black Panther Party, and becomes an elected official.
This goes against Cecil's wishes as he has made a career of being seen and not heard, trusting that the actions he has seen through the presidents he has served will trickle down the rest of the nation.
The interesting thing from this film is the progression of the Civil Rights movement that unfolds before us in bits and pieces from 1957 to 1986. Dwight Eisenhower is president when Cecil begins his career at the White House and the first order of business we see him discussing is how to deal with Orval Faubus in Arkansas. So we get to see what's going on in the White House from Cecil's point of view at the same time, we see what is happening across the country from his son's point of view. If nothing else, it's a reminder of what was going on in a very dark time in our country and we seem to have forgotten it too quickly. There's a difference between moving on and forgetting about it.
The acting in this film was solid, minus some casting choices for the presidents. Oprah had flashes of the greatness that we've come to expect from her as does Forrest Whitaker as a humble, quiet observer who believes that things will follow a natural progression and change for the better over time. He sticks well to his "be seen and not heard" teachings. I really felt the star of the show was David Oyelowo, who plays a head strong, smart young man who sees injustice around him and is impatient with the way things move in terms of change.
The choices to play the U.S. Presidents were interesting. Alan Rickman and James Marsden were believable and likeable as Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy respectively while Robin Williams and John Cusack were a tough sell as presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.
The only true flaw of Lee Daniels' The Butler is that it felt like I was watching a long movie.
Attached to this article is an interview Jonathan did with actor Matthew Modine