The Butler is based on the real life story of Cecil Gaines, an African-American who served as a butler in the White House through eight administrations. Cecil, played by Forest Whitaker who always disappears into whatever role he’s inhabiting, here takes on the part of a man whose job is to please by not making his presence felt; as he’s told by one employer–the room “should feel empty” when you’re in it.

The Butler starts out with Cecil as a young boy in the 1920s working on a cotton plantation in the South. From the very beginning the story is set up to tug at your heart strings and what human being with a heart and mind wouldn’t be affected by the horrors of the brutal racism of the time. The film is emotionally affecting and will make you tear up but it’s hard to escape the feeling you’re watching a movie meant to do just that.

Despite this undercurrent of manipulation the life of Cecil Gaines is extraordinary and certainly worthy of a film. The changes that occurred in American society in general, and specifically in terms of civil rights during the more than 30 years Cecil worked in the White House, and his proximity to the seat of power and history give the film weight.

The movie also benefits from a strong supporting cast. Oprah Winfrey is Cecil’s wife Gloria. Initially you can’t help being aware that it’s Oprah but as the narrative continues, her funny, warm and touching performance makes you forget all the swag she gave away on her talk show and you believe her as Gloria.

David Oyelowo is excellent as Gloria and Cecil’s son Louis, an activist who is at odds with his father and Elijah Kelley is funny and natural as their younger son Charlie.

The casting of well-known actors as the various presidents is distracting and the movie would have been much more convincing with character actors cast in the roles. John Cusack as Nixon is the most ridiculous of the casting choices with Cusack wearing a prosthetic nose that makes him look like Pinocchio and nothing like Nixon. The parade of celebrity presidents is like an adult Halloween party gone awry and completely takes you out of the movie. Note to Lee Daniels watch Lincoln.

Forest Whitaker is the heart and center of The Butler and thanks to his emotionally restrained yet heartfelt portrayal of Cecil, the movie rises above the sometimes heavy handed tone and silly casting choices. You can feel Cecil’s pride the first time he walks into the White House and his subdued anger at the inequity all around him.

Through Cecil’s eyes we see the best and worst of humanity and how far our extremely flawed country, founded on the highest of ideals, has come. When the credits roll you appreciate those like Cecil who paved the way through hard work and example and realize how far we have left to go.

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