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The father and son relationship at the heart of The Butler nearly eclipses the story proper, which concerns African-American Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a long time White House butler who served during eight administrations over 34 years.
The tension between Cecil and his son Louis who stages sit-ins and becomes a member of the Black Panthers is what drives the story.
The film a cliff-notes notes version of American history, covering everything from the Civil Rights Movement to the Vietnam War and the bourgeoning role of women and African Americans in society, but this tends to make the film a bit overstuffed with detail.
Whitaker is excellent as Cecil, taking a role that could have been overly showy with a lesser actor and playing it with compassion and subtlety. Oprah Winfrey is similarly good as Cecil’s wife, Gloria, a woman who struggled to keep her family together in the absence of their father. Director Daniels hits most of the right dramatic notes, retaining the intense interpersonal drama.
The film is not a documentary – many events are dramatised or altered completely – and The Butler has a tendency to move from one historical signpost to the next without exploring the climate between beyond a surface level. Even so, this is an entertaining, nicely acted portrait of a man who saw America changing for the better from behind the scenes.