The Butler Review: Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker Captivate

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker star in a Lee Daniels' The Butler
Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker star in a Lee Daniels' "captivating" The Butler. WEINSTEIN

In Theaters Friday, Aug. 16
***/4

The comparisons are inevitable. Just like Forrest Gump, this warm drama chronicles a man who unwittingly becomes a part of the 20th-century tapestry. Except that The Butler doesn't gloss over social issues.

In 1957, former plantation laborer Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) begins serving as a butler in the White House and continues for seven administrations. That's Cecil lamenting segregation to Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams), comforting a grief-stricken Jackie Kennedy (Minka Kelly) and listening to a defensive Richard Nixon (John Cusack).

Amusing stunt casting aside, it's riveting to observe how civil rights evolved from inside the Oval Office.

But this fact-based offering loses its fluidity on the home front, where Cecil and his wife (Oprah Winfrey, a powerful on-screen presence) contend with their son, Louis. An uncompromising Black Panther, Louis and his dad fight viciously for decades over their ideals — and all gets resolved after Cecil opens up a history book. (The hackneyed line that ends the estrangement: "I lost my son!") 

Cecil's enduring marriage also misses a few beats, as an infidelity subplot with a randy neighbor (Terrence Howard) abruptly pops and stops. Still, when the long-suffering butler triumphantly gets his due in the present day, it's a splendid sight.

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