I put off watching this for quite some time, thinking that I probably wouldn’t like it that much and I have to say, that having finally bitten the bullet, I was correct in my assumptions. Lee Daniel’s saga is a probably well-intentioned attempt to portray the way in which black people have worked in the wings throughout history to service their white employers; in this case, in the wings of the White House.
The story follows Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker) the son of a plantation worker who witnesses the murder of his father and the (off screen) rape of his mother, before running away to find a better life for himself. He eventually finds employment at a Washington hotel and is then invited to work at the White House himself. His wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and he have a couple of sons, and when the oldest becomes involved in the Black Power movement, it puts a rift between father and son, that takes a long time healing. Meanwhile, a string of Presidents, all played by major actors, comes and goes while Cecil attends to their needs. Robin Williams is Eisenhower, James Marsden is Kennedy, John Cusack is Nixon. Curiously the only who really nails it is Alan Rickman as Reagan. It’s an oddly sanitised affair and it’s hampered by the fact that both Whitaker and Winfrey are too old to play their younger selves and have to be plastered with latex to embody the latter stages of their lives. If this was a biopic, it might have been more satisfying but Gaines is a composite, based on various real life butlers and too much of the film has Whitaker standing around serving drinks, while world-changing events unfold all around him.
It’s nicely mounted and for the most part, well acted, but his feels like a decidedly chocolate box approach to an important subject.