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.