The Butler is inspired by Eugene Allen, who worked as a butler in the White House for eight American presidents. But, as superbly played by Forest Whitaker, this is a fictionalization of his experience and how he saw the civil rights movement.
Whitaker’s character starts as a child in the cotton fields of Georgia where his parents are slaves. He grows up to become a waiter and by 1957 is a White House butler during Eisenhower’s presidency. He has a front row seat to the changes in American society as blacks fight for their civil rights.
From a subservient generation, he watches the world change. Even his son (David Oyelowo) becomes a freedom rider, flirts with the Black Panther movement and becomes politically engaged, while Whitaker’s character faithfully brings tea to the president and hands out cookies to visiting schoolchildren. According to the movie, even in the 80s, blacks were paid less than whites in the White House.
It is a great cast, with Oprah Winfrey as Whitaker’s wife, and a not always successful parade of big names playing the presidents. James Marsden is good as Kennedy but I’m not sure that John Cusack as Nixon and Alan Rickman as Reagan work, although they are fun to watch. Jane Fonda is better as Nancy Reagan.
However, this is Whitaker’s film and he’s excellent. But it’s also a light course in American social history during this time.
Rating: four deer out of five
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Alf Cryderman is a Red Deer freelance writer and old movie buff.