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Wonderful Biopic of a White House Butler
on November 20, 2013
THE BUTLER is a film which, for all its sentimental tone, nonetheless addresses the fundamental issue of civil rights, and whether the reforms of the Sixties have actually had the desired effect. It centers on the life of Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker), who grew up on a plantation but spent most of his career in service at the White House. To his son Louis (David Oyelowo), Cecil is nothing more than a representative of "Uncle Tom" culture, spending his life in willing thrall to the white man. On the other hand Cecil manages to provide for his family and carve out a career; it is only late on in his life, when President Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) offers him an opportunity to savor something that he has never previously experience, that he understands how little his masters have changed, ideologically speaking, since the days of racial segregation. This is the film's "aha-moment" - from then on Gaines devotes himself to the cause of equal rights. THE BUTLER brings out the ambiguities of the African American experience; how Gaines' life might be regarded as a form of "liberation," despite working for a succession of white Presidents; and how the Civil Rights cause (as symbolized by the Black Panther movement of the Sixties and Seventies) might not have necessarily aided the African American experience. The film contains a clutch of memorable performances: Oprah Winfrey is quite admirable as Gaines' wife Gloria, supported by Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr., in supporting roles. Whitaker is quite simply brilliant in the title role; he ages gracefully while always sustaining his self-respect. If he does not get Oscar-nominated for his performance, I'd be extremely surprised. A memorable cinematic experience.