Two things strike you about The Butler - the magnitude of the events that take place over its time period and that it stars, well, almost everyone.
Opening in a cotton field in 1926, a young Cecil Gaines watches his mother being dragged off by the plantation overseer to be raped and his father shot dead for speaking up. It's a horrific and tragic beginning, and yet it's almost overwhelmed by the celebrity cameo appearances. Was that Mariah Carey as Cecil's mother? Is that the normally lovely Alex Pettyfer as the nasty overseer? Oh, here's Vanessa Redgrave as the matriarch who takes Cecil into the house to be trained as a houseboy ...
This star spotting continues as Cecil (Whitaker) becomes one of the top-ranked butlers in the White House and goes on to serve eight Presidents. Seeing who will turn up and play the likes of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Ronald Reagan is part of the fun in what is otherwise a sombre history lesson. To keep an element of surprise, all I'll say is that Alan Rickman, Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden and Liev Schreiber all get a shot, with mixed results.
Enough name-dropping. Danny Strong's script, inspired by the story of real-life butler Eugene Allen, uses each President's term in office to provide an insider's view of the issues Americans faced during the 20th century. Headline events are the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War, and gender equality and fair pay also get an airing, with a personal touch coming through the Gaines family as Cecil battles his eldest son who joins the Civil Rights Movement against his wishes.
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As the star-studded cameos continue - did I mention Jane Fonda, Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr? - Whitaker holds the story together.
Daniels does a good job of portraying the period in a warm, moving and righteous manner. It's at its most interesting when dealing with politics; at its most touching when dealing with family, although the volume of material to get through means it does drag at times.
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack
Director: Lee Daniels
Running Time: 132 mins
Rating: M (Violence and offensive language)
Verdict: A smart and moving, if somewhat overstuffed, historical saga.