Rating: 3 out of 5
This is an strangely slushy movie from Lee Daniels, whose last two films (Precious and The Paperboy) bristled with unexpected life. By contrast, this star-packed drama uses a true story to trace the Civil Rights struggle from the 1950s to the present day. But it's been so fictionalised that it feels kind of like a variation on Forrest Gump.
Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) grew up on a Georgia cotton plantation, where the cruel master's kindly mother (Redgrave) taught him to be a house servant. Years later, he marries Gloria (Winfrey) and moves to Washington DC, where he gets a job in the White House as a butler to presidents from Eisenhower (Williams) to Reagan (Rickman). His job description is simple: "You hear nothing, you see nothing, you only serve." And yet as the nation grapples with its racist culture, he has a quiet influence on each leader who moves through the house.
Whitaker narrates the film in drawling flashbacks, while the story flickers between Cecil and his eldest son Louis (Oyelowo), an activist who is involved in every key moment in the Civil Rights movement. And their younger son (Kelley) is sent to Vietnam. So it's like a condensed version of late 20th century American history, made notable by the lively cast of cameo players including Marsden (as JFK), Schreiber (LBJ), Ellis (MLK) and Cusack (Nixon), plus Fonda as a lively Nancy Reagan.
As it races through the decades, the script tries to create some messy melodrama in Cecil's family life, which seems both cheesy and distracting compared to the much bigger themes involved. And while Whitaker is fine in the role, Cecil is essentially passive and uninteresting, only livened up by the scene-chewing Winfrey. The most complex performance in the film, hands down, comes from the gifted Oyelowo.
The scenes in which Louis takes on the racist establishment have far more resonance than anything else in the movie, and they add the prickly edge that the whole film so badly needs. Everything else feels softened down for the masses. Although audiences looking for more depth will find it in the irony of how black people were once only allowed in the White House as servants. So watching Cecil and Gloria attend a state banquet in the Reagan White House carries a nice kick, as does seeing Cecil's reaction when Obama wins the 2008 election.
Facts and Figures
In Theaters: Monday 13th March 1916
Box Office Worldwide: $115.9M
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
IMDB: 5.5 / 10
Cast & Crew
Director: Lee Daniels
Screenwriter: Danny Strong, Wil Haygood
Starring: Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, David Banner as Earl Gaines, Michael Rainey Jr. as Cecil Gaines (8), LaJessie Smith as Abraham, Mariah Carey as Hattie Pearl, Alex Pettyfer as Thomas Westfall, Vanessa Redgrave as Annabeth Westfall, Ami Ameen as Cecil Gaines (15), Clarence Williams III as Maynard, John P. Fertitta as Mr. Jenkins, Jim Gleason as R.D. Warner, Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, Jesse Williams as Rev. James Lawson, Lenny Kravitz as James Holloway, Cuba Gooding Jr. as Carter Wilson, Terrence Howard as Howard, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, David Oyelowo as Louis Gaines, Yaya DaCosta as Carol Hammie