It’s the 1920’s in the cotton fields of America’s South. Cecil Gains (played by Michael Rainey Jr., Aml Ameen then Forest Whitaker) is a young child, born and raised here on the cotton plantation with his parents. His childhood is marked by horror and cruelty as he watches the abuse of his mother and violent death of his father. An orphan, the landowner’s wife (by Vanessa Redgrave) takes him in to the homestead as a house servant, where he works until he’s a teenager. He learns to tend to the family’s every whim as if he’s not there. He leaves the plantation to make his own way in the world and heads north. He finds deep love with his wife Gloria (by Oprah Winfrey) and they raise two sons, Louis (by David Oyelowo) and Charlie (by Elijah Kelley). He works hard to provide for his wife and family. He excels as a server and rises through jobs as house servant to a butler. One day while he’s working, he’s spotted by a household manager from the White House and invited to work there. He proudly becomes a White House butler. So begins his long career serving the President. As the years pass, issues of civil rights and race segregation bring more and more active protests and violence throughout the country and Cecil’s son Louis becomes politically active. Cecil finds this very hard to accept and their relationship suffers. His career at the White House spans his loyal and discrete service to Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush Snr. Although Cecil is an unassuming man, throughout the decades his unwavering loyalty to the Presidents brings unexpected challenges in his personal life and for his family.
This movie brings to screen a story uncovered during the Obama Presidential campaign when journalist Wil Haygood sought an African American who’d been a White House employee during the Civil Rights movement. He found Eugene Allen, now 89, and this is his story. The issues of the time are depicted well, as is the conflict between father and son – it gives a good overview for anyone not familiar with the issues, the significance of the Freedom Bus and the work of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. Clearly, it has the potential to be really great and with such strength in the cast from Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Terence Howard, Vanessa Redgrave, Lenny Kravitz, John Cusack and Cuba Gooding Jr, its credentials cannot be denied. Alongside these key characters, the drama is peppered with cameos from great actors such as Jane Fonda, Robin Williams, Alan Rickman and Clarence Williams III … the list goes on and on – it should have been stunning … but … it isn’t. Unfortunately, it’s only okay. Both Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey put in good strong performances (in my view, she is much better on screen than as a talk show host), but the rest is only good, not outstanding. There have been whispers of disappointments that Oscar nominations didn’t come, but it doesn’t really rate well enough alongside the other contenders for this year. I think that is the right call for this one.
Made in 2013. Directed by Lee Daniels