Directed by Lee Daniels, Written by Danny Strong
Starring Forrest Whittaker, Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, and a cast of thousands
Reviewed by Trulie Pinnegar
In the current movie arena, you would be forgiven for thinking that this movie is another White House related flick what with the recent releases of White House Down and Olympus has Fallen which explore political goings on in the House in the (Capitol) hill.
But you’d be wrong. Instead this is a political look at how the racism that plagued America until the mid 1980s affected one of the White House employees.
We first meet 8 year old Cecil (Forest Whitaker’s character) working on a cotton plantation in 1926. When the plantation owner helps himself to Cecil’s mother, young Cecil finds it hard to understand why his father doesn’t do anything to prevent it. His father initially tells him that this ‘is his world’ but then attempts to confront the owner and in response gets shot in the head and dies instantly. Cecil is ‘saved’ by the owner’s mother who takes him from the fields and teaches him to serve at the house. He lasts until he is 15 and then leaves, wanting to make a better life for himself. Thus begins Cecil’s journey as a public servant.
By 1957, Cecil has a senior position in a hotel in Washington DC. He is happily married to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and they have 2 sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Isaac White). Cecil is happy with his lot until he gets a call inviting him to interview for a butler’s position at the White House.
Cecil’s time at the House starts when Eisenhower (played by Robin Williams) is in residence. It soon becomes apparent that Louis is a staunch activist for the Civil Rights Movement, which causes many an argument between him and his father and Louis makes it clear he is not happy that his father is serving a white man, particularly one who could improve the civil rights issue but his father won’t use his position to try and influence the president. It’s difficult to ascertain whether Cecil is against the movement or whether his conditioning to be subservient means that he opts instead for the path of least resistance.
The story follows Cecil’s career serving a further 5 presidents, Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Nixon (John Cusack), Carter and Reagan (superbly portrayed by Alan Rickman). Cecil never tries to influence their political stance, even though they often seek his opinion on civil rights matters. Instead, in that time, we see him dutifully serve whilst dealing with a wife battling with alcohol addiction, a son fighting for equal rights and losing his youngest son to the Vietnam war.
The story follows Cecil into retirement. He reconciles with Louis after Charlie’s death but it is only after Gloria’s death and Obama’s successful election in 2008 that he and Louis truly make peace.
The movie replicates shocking scenes of racial violence and hatred and intertwines these expertly with actual footage from the times. It’s this actual footage that disgusts and reminds us all that this outrageous behavior happened in our lifetime. The realisation that it was only in Reagan’s administration that equality was enforced is shocking. If you’re not interested in Cecil’s life this is still a must see as a lesson in modern history.
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