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Lewis King


Instantly, you’ll be hit by how ‘The Butler’ is like the ‘Forrest Gump’ of the civil rights movement. It flies through the past 70 years of American race relations and politics from the view of a character that has been left out of history books, but who was right at the forefront of it. Forest Whitaker plays a modest, uneducated man telling his story without fully realising how close he was to defining moments.

The film loosely follows the story of Eugene Allen, a man who served as a White House butler for 34 years. His story was reported in the Washington Post just after Obama was elected president in 2008. This is an “inspired by” rather than “based on” true events film, a phrase which seems to imply a request for more creative freedom. Allen is fictionalised as Cecil Gaines who experiences a Hollywood traumatising childhood and is motivated to put his emotion into serving. Fortunate enough to encounter people willing to mentor him he learns respect not just for his work, but for himself in his societal position, being scolded when he describes himself using the “white man’s word.”

The back-story montage quickly shows his career progression, eventually leading to an offer to serve right in the centre of the American Government. From this, the narration launches right into the thick of the film: a collision of family and political drama.

Forest Whitaker is a strong and dignified lead, which not only is consistent in his stoicism and reserve as Cecil ages but also in his charm. The scene where Cecil is invited to The White House might be used for workshops on how to give a superb job interview.

Oprah Winfrey, as Gloria Gaines, brings a glowing presence although she has little opportunity to shine: she seems to be a vessel for her husband. The most she gets to do is occasionally feel neglected by her workaholic spouse or praise and defend his career.  However, they both provide needed warmth that does not always come through the script.

The film is also packed with rubbery impressions of presidents and important figures.  If you look at ‘The Butler’s poster, you can use its star-list to play some cameo spotting. Tick them off as they roll along the narrative conveyer belt. Their brief appearances are a bit distracting; partly to keep us watching but possibly not for the best reasons.

Not intending to sound facetious, but it’s also possible to play history bingo too. The film works its hardest to honour every important event and figure of civil rights into its condensed and watchable two hours. It achieves its referential mission but weighs the film down; compromising on a stronger and more personal exploration of segregated society through a mixed family and political drama.

The narrative is sometimes a bit confusing and clumsily packed; meaning the emotional pay off is never explosive enough. Gaines is pressured by his son’s political involvement in civil rights campaigning and his own proximity to power. He must appear invisible in the arena of politics. Yet, as he is stuck in a moral situation, wondering whether to break the butlers’ code of silence and hoping his son’s political activity goes under the White House radar, we don’t feel the jeopardy. Apparently there was a possibility he could lose his job. Cecil’s fears, disguising of emotion, and the voyeuristic spying tension all had a lot of potential to have been increased.

Lee Daniels’ direction also restrains on a ferocious depiction of segregation and protesting. Harsh language and racial slurs are used appropriately. Real photos are shown to inject some authentic and chilling realism but these are also a little jarring.

I think that a lot has been held back and toned down so as not to incite trauma for younger viewers and for anyone who has been on the receiving end of horrific prejudice. As an educational film it also packs in the moral aphorisms, sometimes too many to remember. Occasionally it has an unnecessary didactic style. One scene essentially lays out what Cecil Gaines represents, like a patronising film student leaning over and giving you a mini lecture. It spoils the enjoyment of a character whose actions and story spoke for him.

As a tribute to steps taken for, and a celebration of, a more respectful society this film could have been an oxygen stealing triumph. It is somewhat let down by clunkiness and a struggle to capture the expanse of its subject, which could have been achieved in a more epic 3 hours. Though the ending is not quite a full-on tearjerker, it might stroke you with a reflective and temporary optimism for humanity. It also wets the appetite for next year’s Mandela film where we will continue to mourn, honour and maybe physically cry for a real life hero.

Reviewed by Lewis King.

captain-phillips-international-posterAs it was only a few years ago, it’s likely that you’ll remember the events that ‘Captain Phillips’ is based on. In 2009 the cargo ship of Captain Rich Phillips and his crew was boarded by four young Somali pirates. Events escalated, leading to Phillips being captured by the Somalis and enduring a hostage situation on the escaping lifeboat.

At the time, the news reportage of these real hijackings and the simultaneous portrayal of pirates as fun adventurers in Western cinema couldn’t have felt more at odds with each other. It is pure conjecture, but I wonder whether there is something about the word ‘pirate,’ and our cultural associations with it, that stops us from truly understanding the severity of the issue. Perhaps, by wrapping it up in an entertaining Hollywood production, ‘Captain Philips’ will raise some awareness about real piracy and the global economic issues that surround it.

At its core the film is a survival thriller, and director Paul Greengrass grips us by pumping out heart thumping tension. The pacing is consistent, even in the quite lengthy third act. In comparison to ‘Argo,’ another recent film based on a real international hostage incident, ‘Captain Phillips’ plays with the audience’s sense of hope and fear with more intensity. There is, however, the feeling that there has been a small bit of miss-marketing and some action fans may be expecting a modern ‘Under Siege,’ but this is not an action film. There are plenty of exciting sequences, but the title protagonist is not a one man army. It’s a portrayal of a real man’s attempts at escape and painful endurance. Despite his situation, there is plenty of humanity and sympathy from Phillips which, unsurprisingly, Tom Hanks expresses excellently, bringing a heart breaking performance as the film progresses.

Greengrass’ experience of handling true tales such as this one shines through, as the wider picture is also explored without any deviation or affect on pacing. The piracy issue is handled in the best possible way: without unnecessary blame and with plenty of room for interpretation and discussion.

Early on, the film pictures a poverty stricken fishing village in Somalia and the conditions of recruiting pirates.
There’s no demonisation of the Somalis as a ’threat’ to the Western economy or suffocating portrayal of them as forced victims. There are subtle references to an organised crime figurehead and a hierarchy of power, but they’re explored in appropriate doses; enough to spark interest but without providing overly simplistic answers.

There are moments between Philips and his lead captor, Muse, that explore the relationship between Africa and America. In one scene Muse tells Phillips about his ambition to go to America, imagining the country as that iconic land of opportunity. Unfortunately, no economy is stable and even work in the Western world is not guaranteed. This is subtly acknowledged by the captain himself at the start of the film, in conversation with his wife. This insight into Muse’s aspirations makes him an interesting character as he is brutal and dislikable but also desperate and sympathetic.

There has been some controversy surrounding the portrayal of the title man himself, with Phillips’ real life crew describing actions he took as reckless and even blaming him for the hijacking. Authenticity is always a point of contention when it comes to films based on true stories and, in this particular case, most of it probably stems from the use of Phillips’ own memoirs as the main source for the plot. That said, I didn’t feel that he was overly portrayed as an American hero.

Despite acknowledging his quick wittedness and bravery in the face of adversity, and despite being called ‘Captain Phillips’, the film is not just about Captain Phillips. It is an intelligent thriller that will rock your emotions whilst subtly engaging you in the wider context of the piracy issue.

Released in the UK on October 16th 2013.