Lee Daniels' The Butler
The Weinstein Company
Reason for the Rating: Some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking
Plot Summary: A black man works as a butler to eight presidents, and watches as the Civil Rights Movement unfolds before him
PopFam Recommends: Despite a few quirks in casting, this is not a movie to miss—great for ages 12 and up to see together.
After a summer of watching movies such as Wolverine, Smurfs 2, and Pacific Rim, The Butler is a welcomed and thought-provoking movie that digs into the history of the US, as well as peering into the intricacies of family dynamics. All in 126 minutes.
Forrest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a man born on a cotton plantation in the early 1900's, and who only knows picking cotton with his family. After watching his father get shot to death when he's eight, the matriarch of the plantation, Annabelle Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave) takes Cecil inside to learn how to serve the family while staying quiet ("the room should feel empty when you're in it."). This "education" serves Cecil well once he leaves the plantation and ends up working at an expensive hotel in Washington D.C. where he is noticed by White House staff and offered a job. Cecil remains employed by the White House for more than three decades, serving eight presidents.
While Cecil is keeping the White House put together, his family is falling apart. His wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), is an alcoholic and cavorting with the neighbor, as his son, Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes increasingly active in the Civil Rights Movement...riding Freedom Buses, participating in sit-in's, marches, and eventually becoming a Black Panther. The rift between father and son grows increasingly wide. As a young boy, Cecil watched as his father was killed by a white man for attempting to protect his family, and thus he learned how to remain inconspicuous and non-threatening. As an adult, Cecil continues to do what he was taught, quietly serve with pride, while Louis stands with others to fight for equal rights.
The spectrum of this movie is broad. Almost too broad. It takes in almost 100 years and reduces it to the length of a movie, but Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong do well at including those events that are pertinent to the story, while excluding others that would simply be too much information. The cast of well-known actors is also expansive. Not only do Oprah Winfrey and Forrest Whitaker star in the movie, but Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding, Jr, and Terrance Howard have supporting roles, as well. While all of these actors played their roles well, there were a few well-known's that left a "Hmm, that's interesting" thought in my mind. It's apparent they attempted to make Robin Williams as President Truman, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson, and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan look somewhat like their famous characters, but they still looked too much like themselves to not be a distraction. It left me thinking things like, "So that's what Liev Schreiber would look like with extensions on his earlobes," or "Alan Rickman does a great job of covering his accent!" instead of listening to what was being said. John Cusack as RIchard Nixon was just all wrong in look and voice. I'm not sure where that casting call came from, but it didn't work. The only one that was relatively right was James Marsden as John F. Kennedy.
Despite a few quirks in casting, this is a great movie. With it's topic, scope, and detail, this is a movie that middle schoolers and up can understand and appreciate. It will open the door for conversations, not only about the history of our country, but prejudice, respect, and God's love for everyone. It's not one to miss.
Let’s Talk About It
Use these questions to spark discussion among family members who are interested in this movie:
• The Butler opens with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." How did this movie give meaning to those words?
• In what ways did Cecil and Louis both contribute to the civil right movement?
• Compare and contrast the story of Cecil and Louis to the parable of the Prodigal Son.
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