(making for a bit of an awkward presentation)

 

Here’s a true story about a Black man from Georgia who serves as a Butler in the White House for seven presidents – the IMBD page says eight, but I counted 7 – how he rose from the son of a cotton farmer to working in hotels to getting the white house gig, all while raising a family in the civil rights era.

 

On a historical level, the film includes a good deal of ‘real’ news clips – none of them too long – of the freedom riders and of the Kennedy assassination days.  There are a good deal of staged shots that are meant to reflect historical moments, such as a minister meeting with students as they plan their efforts in the famous Woolworth snack counter sit- ins, with some very real (and therefore emotionally uncomfortable) moments.

 

We first meet Cecil Gaines (the main focus of our story) as a young boy in Georgia, where he toils alongside his father in the cotton fields.  He witnesses some horrible things in those fields of the 1920s that stay with him for all his life.  Cecil (who after being played by a few younger actors, shows up as Forrest Whitaker) is brought into the household as ‘a house nigger’ (that’s their name for it, folks) to learn the art of serving.  Eventually he becomes tired of working for the family, so he strikes out and manages to get a job at a nice hotel in the north.  He is noticed by some government officials and is invited to join the white house staff in the middle of the Eisenhower administration.

 

We then meet his family – his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is a rather chilly, cigarette smoking, drinking lady, who later grows out of such habits.  Their son Louis (Daniel Oyelowo) has his emotions on his sleeve and heads out to be involved in the freedom riders, the Black Panthers, and eventually the world of politics.  Louis and Cecil are estranged for a part of the movie; and yes, we do get to see them reconcile to some degree.  The other son, Charlie, (Isaac White) is seen as admiring his older brother and a bit of a peacemaker in the family, but having his own feelings revealed – and his own tragedy.

 

The focus of the show wobbles some between being a ‘father and son’ story and a civil rights centered story.  Clearly the historical times are here as I’ve mentioned, but there are also hints of racism in more than the national headlines – there are hints at the ugliness of the cotton fields at the beginning of the movie, eventually showing up some as unfair labor practices within the walls of the white house itself.  The father-son division rises from how Cecil and Louis see the entire race issue from different angles, causing a rift of some size.  The two deal with each other in anger, in silence, in disappointment, and finally in resolution.

 

It is this double-bladed plot that finds me wishing that they had focused on one or the other.  They handled both of them with enough sensitivity, but then neither therefore got the attention that both story lines deserved.

 

The acting was acceptable – Mr. Whitaker is always solid, and Oprah plays the ‘chilly’ wife with as much accuracy as she played her pitiable character in THE COLOR PURPLE.   Daniel Oyelowo keeps the tension going as the elder son as he faces the race life of a Black college age student of the 1960s.

 

There is some true casting fun as familiar faces show up in different ways.  I don’t want to give any of these surprises away, but let’s just say there’s an English diva, a Mod Squad veteran, an alien, the famous brother of a famous sister, a famous liberal daughter of a famous acting family, and a German terrorist showing up in interesting roles as a southern lady, an employer, as presidents and as a first lady.  Your job is to spot them.  By the way, my wife and I think the alien did the best of these parts – and the German terrorist was a bit off the mark.

 

For a sound track, lots of classical music is used, but also some very appropriate MOTOWN type tunes, cleverly used to outline the time periods.

 

The movie runs for 2 hours and 12 minutes.  It is directed by Lee Daniels.  Produced by FOLLOW THROUGH PRODUCTIONS, SALAMANDER PICTURES and LAURA ZISKIN PRODUCTIONS.

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