THE BUTLER tells the history of the civil rights movement as seen through the life of a White House butler who served eight Presidents from Truman to Reagan.
Inspired by a true story, THE BUTLER has patches of brilliance, and it's worth seeing for its terrific cast alone, but the film tries to cover way too much ground, and some scenes are just too melodramatic.
The film begins when the main character, Cecil, is a young boy working in a cotton field. his father wardens him about how dangerous their boss is "Don't lose your temper with that man. It's his world; we just live in it."
A minute later Cecil watches that land owner shoot and kill his sharecropper father. But fortunately, the matriarch of the killer's family (Vanessa Redgrave) trains Cecil to work inside. And the skills he acquires ultimately lead him to a job in the White House where the man who hires him warns: "You hear nothing; you see nothing. You only serve."
Forest Whitaker could get an Oscar nomination for his fine performance as a discreet professional who lives long enough to see Obama win the Presidency.
He knows about the injustice that is still being done to Black Americans in the 1950's and 60's, but he's not prepared when one of his two sons becomes a freedom rider.
John Kennedy says to Cecil: "I know your son is a freedom rider." (We see shots of hooded KKK men attacking and burning a bus.) "I never understood what you all really went through. You've changed my heart."
And when that grown son comes home for a holiday visit, they clash. Cecil thinks the Academy Award winning actor, Sidney Poitier, is a great man. His son says Poitier is just an "Uncle Tom," acting like a white man.
Oprah Winfrey plays Cecil's wife, Gloria, and she's convincing in the role.
The main problem with THE BUTLER is that it's trying to cover 34 years in two hours, so that major events are given short shrift and some scenes feel like soap opera.
Still, THE BUTLER, is an important film. Through one man's life, it presents three decades of the shameful history of racism in America.
Terry Hunter, Hawaii News Now firstname.lastname@example.org