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“The Butler” rests on a gimmick, and a pretty good gimmick at that: The story of an African-American butler (Forest Whitaker) for seven White House administrations, from Eisenhower through Reagan. The character’s a fly on the wall of the civil rights struggle, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and much more, yet the movie is remarkable not for its “Forrest Gump”-itude but for its unerring social portrait of a black middle class torn by the stress-fractures of an era.
The cast is stacked with stars — Oprah Winfrey as the hero’s wife, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as his colleagues, all sorts of surprises as the various commanders in chief — but director Lee Daniels is focused on making us look hard at a man who thought the only way forward was to be invisible.
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