Through the eyes of Forest Whitaker's Cecil Gaines, a cotton farmer who was able to escape tyranny and work his way up to the household staff of the White House, we witness the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. Gaines experiences everything from Brown v. Board of Education and the desegregation of public spaces to voting rights demonstrations from an insider's perspective, while his son David (played masterfully by David Oyelowo) sees them through his adversities as an activist, first as a Freedom Rider and later as an early member of the Black Panthers.
It's nearly impossible to watch this movie without experiencing a roller coaster of visceral reactions — terror, disgust, shock, sadness, and, finally, guilt. As educated as we'd like to think we are about the Civil Rights Movement, watching children being hosed by police while attempting to walk to school, or a bus full of activists being attacked by Klan members (carrying signs with messages far too horrifying to warrant re-printing) is like a sucker punch to the gut. Even director Lee Daniels succumbed to the discomfort of it all during shooting. "We were on the bus shooting that infamous scene, on a bridge where black men were actually hung from, and from nowhere come the KKK cursing and spitting and shaking the bus," he said at the film's New York press conference. "I yell 'Cut' and they can't hear me and they continue on, and then for that millisecond I understood what it was like to be them. Not just the black kids, but the white kids who were there, who were willing to risk their lives for freedom...it was that 'aha' moment."
Of course, that's not to say that every aspect of The Butler is a home run. Viewers who lived through the movement will likely balk at the speed in which the film moves — a palatable run time often gets in the way of digging deeper into each plot twist, and not too much time for things to sink in. Many of the movie's characters are there and gone in a flash, robbing the audience of even the slightest chance to become attached (poor Minka Kelly is given but a single line of dialogue as the legendary Jackie O). But, for all its flaws, the message remains. As James Marsden's John F. Kennedy tells Whitaker's Gaines in one of the film's most pivotal moments: "I never understood what you all went through...you've changed my heart." The Butler aims to change the heart of those who need it, and reawaken the souls of the rest of us. The movie opens nationwide Friday, August 16.