The Butler recounts the life-story of Cecil Gains (Forest Whitaker), a character based on a man named Eugene Allen, who worked as a White House butler from the late 1950’s until the late 1980’s. Cecil is not only a butler but occasional confidante to Eisenhower, JFK, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan; the film conspicuously leap-frogs over the Ford and Carter administrations. The film traces Cecil’s life from a traumatic upbringing on a Georgia cotton field through his homeless adolescence to his role as a hotel valet and eventually White House butler.
The film pits Cecil’s story against the volatile back-drop of the civil rights movement and a rapidly changing America. The turbulence of the era is reflected in his family as his wife (Oprah Winfrey) turns to alcohol and infidelity while his son Louis (David Oyelowo), much to Cecil’s chagrin, joins the freedom riders and later the Black Panthers. As a man committed to duty, Cecil resents his son’s militancy and seeming lack of respect for the advances Cecil’s generation have made. This Father/ Son conflict forms the dramatic core of this film.
The Butler has received criticism for its apparent distortion of the facts surrounding Eugene Allen’s life. Director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paper Boy) claims, however, that he wanted to create a universal human story rather than a rigorously accurate bio-pic. He provides a view of recent African American history while exploring the vexed issue of whether Cecil’s role as a Butler is a stereotype-crushing example of a dedicated hard working man or simply a continuation of black servitude that began with slavery. No less a person than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (played here by Nelsan Ellis) weighs in on this one during the film.
As the decades unfold and the various Presidential administrations come and go, the film inserts Cecil into a potted history of late 20th century America. At times this looks a little cheesy as Cecil becomes a sort of White House Forest Gump. Bouts of syrupy sentiment, the use of the familiar twinkly music and clunky attempts to denote time periods such as plonking Rubik’s cubes on desks in the 1980’s, also diminish the film’s impact.
Fortunately, the film manages to hit enough powerful notes to avoid becoming a treacly mess. Rapid fire compilations of TV news reports convey the alarming speed of change in the US while dramatisations of events such as attacks on civil rights protestors (including Louis) make for some very confronting scenes.
Forest Whittaker delivers an unusual but riveting performance as Cecil. He depicts him as a decent yet tense, taciturn and emotionally distant man who worked tirelessly to provide for his family and sought solace in the meticulous performance of his butler duties. Oddly, the film forgets about him for long periods as it explores various subplots although this may be a deliberate allusion to his often silent role as the butler.
Oprah Winfrey again shows she’s a fine actor and should appear on the big screen more often as she gives Gloria Gaines a convincing mix of warmth and toughness; at one point she slaps a Black Panther.
David Oyewelo, who was excellent in Daniels’ previous film The Paperboy, wonderfully captures the mix of nobility and arrogance of someone pursuing a righteous cause and the despair of a young man alienated from his father. Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz offer fine support as Cecil’s White House co-workers.
The big name actors who play the presidents are, however, a liability. As they file through the story they don’t have the time to establish their characters so the audience just sees the Hollywood star. As Eisenhower, Robin Williams looks distractingly like his character from One Hour Photo while Alan Rickman looks like Ronald Reagan but still sounds like Professor Snape. Liev Schreiber is a riot, though, as Lyndon Johnson, portraying him as a blustering bigot who at one point conducts a policy meeting on the toilet. A highly unusual piece of casting, though, is John Cusack as Richard Nixon. Cusack, a noted progressive, clearly relished the opportunity to play Nixon as a grotesque figure but the physical and personality differences between the two are so vast it’s hard to accept him in this role and his Nixon ends up looking like a Saturday Night Live parody.
The Butler is a flawed film but still a moving and worthy story of a decent, hard-working man trying to maintain his identity while haunted by a devastating past and a rapidly changing present.
Nick’s rating: Three and a half stars.
Director(s): Lee Daniels.
Release date: 31st Oct 2013
Running time: 132 mins.
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