The story of Cecil Gaines, a White House butler who served eight American presidents over three decades. The film traces the dramatic changes that swept American society during this time, from the civil rights movement to Vietnam and beyond, and how those changes affected this man’s life and family.
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The idea of the butler as a trojan horse for social change is a compelling one, given the historical association of the role with passivity and compliance. Yet this tricky, complex film — a moral conundrum cloaked inside the buttery, soft-focus sheen of the classical Hollywood biopic — never fully throws its weight behind that viewpoint.
The minutiae of daily life and the haunting psychic recesses are all inseparable from the exercise of government power—and “The Butler” has the remarkable effect of making that power appear visible, as if the very air we breathe were suddenly given a tint.
In the film’s single most audacious sequence, Daniels cuts between the following scenes: one of the famous Woolworth’s sit-ins of 1960, in which Louis takes part; flashbacks to Louis and other activists preparing each other for the sort of racist threats they’ll receive at the sit-in; and shots of Cecil and other butlers preparing a dinner party for John F. Kennedy. Here Daniels situates a moment of political action between two very different scenes of role-playing…