(out of 5)
When Barack Obama was voted in to the White House in 2008, the first African American ever to take the highest office in the land and the breath of fresh air to breeze out the Bush administration, the meaning of the experience was most poignant for White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), whose life is the basis of this lumbering epic. Gaines begins the narration of his story as the child of cotton pickers in 1920s Georgia, scarred by the brutal killing of his father in front of his eyes, followed by a wandering adolescence that ends with him working in service for the hard-edged but generous Clarence Williams III. From there he moves up in the industry to being a top-flight server at a swanky Washington bar before he is invited to interview for the position of serving the President of the United States. Gaines sees eight presidents pass under his care, while at home his wife (Oprah Winfrey) is frustrated by an ever increasing gap in their relationship, as she is kept out of his business at work and has to perform more than her share of caring for their two sons. Gaines’ eldest son (David Oyelowo) becomes a Forrest Gump of sorts in America’s burgeoning Civil Rights movement, seemingly in the front row for all the key experiences of the era as he goes from Freedom Rider to Black Panther to politician, all causing heartache and anger with his father who wishes he would tow the line just a little bit more. The spine of this movie is apparently the conflict between father and son, but it is not always possible to tell. The film is more a collection of moments, many of them good, than a proper movie, sort of a greatest hits of Gaines’ life that never quite reaches the zenith it should or finds its main centre. The acme it is reaching for is either the opportunity to reconcile Gaines with his son, his invitation to the White House by a frighteningly accurate Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, or Obama’s victory, it suggests the friction between his work, which we never have a Remains of the Day-style level of detailed view at, and his home life, but this is also never given enough focus. Gaines himself is a murky character, played gracefully by Whitaker but far too frequently relegated to a symbol and not a man. What’s wonderful about Lee Daniels’ epic is that it is a story of racism that does not involve a sympathetic white person at the centre, the kind where black characters get lost in the background of their own story; what’s disappointing is that the latter is still something of a problem even without the former hindrance. The giant cast who appear in key roles mostly amount to little more than distracting stunt casting (Robin Williams doesn’t really land as Eisenhower, James Marsden is far too handsome to be JFK and don’t even get me started on how embarrassed I was for John Cusack as Tricky Dick). Its finest moments, then, are when a shockingly riveting Winfrey takes to the screen, making us realize we had forgotten what a good actress she is. Whether challenging her sons to love their father in spite of what they think he represents, or just sitting around in her misery, staring at the mirror with her constant cigarettes in her hand, she is bewitching, her eyes terrifying in their intensity even when cracking a pained smile. She provides the movie with its strongest anchor and her wonderful work is unforgettable.
Follow Through Productions, Salamander Pictures, Laura Ziskin Productions, Lee Daniels Entertainment, Pam Williams Productions, Windy Hill Pictures
Directed by Lee Daniels
Cinematography by Andrew Dunn
Music by Rodrigo Leao
Production Design by Tim Galvin
Costume Design by Ruth E. Carter