The Butler seems like an attempt to teach everyone the plight of African-Americans in the 20th century and there’s nothing wrong with that but director Lee Daniels drives his point home with a sledgehammer.
The movie which follows the life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) as he works as a butler in the White House was inspired by the Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by this Election”. The article is about Eugene Allen who had worked at the White House for 34 years. And other than one other fact (a possible spoiler) the movie doesn’t intersect the reality of Mr Allen’s life. Thus is the nature of the phrase ‘based on a true story’ in Hollywood.
However, don’t let that detract from an engaging piece of cinema that will simultaneously move you and make you think about the whitewashing of American history.
But trying to distil the entire civil rights movement into two hours and to do it through one man, primarily using only two settings – his house and the White House – is a monumental task. So, it’s forgivable that The Butler seems like Forrest Gump at times. Especially, when Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo) never seems to miss a historic event.
Once Cecil makes his way to the White House, via two hotels where he learns the finer points of servitude, we learn the situation is no better in the presidential palace for those with a darker skin. But he doesn’t mind. He serves seven presidents with absolute delight until he reaches an epiphany – arrived at by the most obvious way.
The cast at the White House include a splendid Cuba Gooding Jr., long missed in a role that actually requires acting, as head butler Carter Wilson and a perfectly understated Lenny Kravitz as co-worker James Holloway. Both lend enough weight to their relatively small roles to flesh out Cecil’s other world into something more tangible in comparison to his world at home.
And then there is the slew of superstar cameos. While awfully distracting and at times mismatched in their parts the most notable exception was Alan Rickman as Reagan. Although his portrayal bordered on caricature it was short enough that it somehow managed to humanise the Republican legend in those quiet moments with Cecil.
But, ultimately, Cecil is a man torn between two worlds – his home and the White House – and it is when the story switches to this dichotomy that The Butler truly shines although not as brightly as it could have.
Louis believes in the civil rights movement and becomes an activist against the wishes of his father. And Daniels uses these contrasting and conflicting personalities to represent the divide in the African American community at the time. At its best the scenes between the warring Cecil and Louis are powerfully emotive but not judgmental of either side. Oddly, Daniels does not stop to preach here.
And, of course, Withaker holds the movie together by underplaying his role to great effect, allowing emotion to flow through slowly but even this can seem like a task sometimes given Daniels’ propensity to make sure his audience doesn’t miss the blatant message.
But the true revelation of the movie is Oprah Winfrey. Her portrayal of Cecil’s alcoholic, unfaithful wife Gloria is sublime. Her presence on screen is commanding without distracting from Withaker’s central character and she fills the role with a sense of resilience that, frankly, is surprising. However, while the choice to have her be unfaithful made her character more interesting the non-addressing and sudden disappearance of the issue seemed like a failed attempt to create unwanted melodrama in the final act.
Ultimately, there is something corny and sweet about the whole experience. Daniels could have allowed for more subtlety and less stunt casting but the finished product is not without its charm.