Review: The Butler

Foest Whitaker

Foest Whitaker

Frances Winston feels this movie deals with historical issues sensitively, as it documents the race struggle, and more

Directed by: Lee Daniels – Starring: Forest Whitaker,  Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo  Mariah Carey, Vanessa Redgrave, Minka Kelly, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda

As you can see, this film boasts an all-star cast. Blink and you’ll miss most of them though, as this takes you on a trip through the 34-year-career of White House Butler, Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) as he serves under eight presidents, and is witness to enormous social change and historical events. This says it is based on a true story, and indeed it was inspired by the life of one Eugene Allen, who only died three years ago after a prestigious career in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. However, aside from his illustrious achievements, writers have taken a lot of dramatic licence with his actual biography. But if you forget about Allen and just look upon this a piece of historical commentary, with some fine performances and thought-provoking moments, then you will enjoy it.

Told in flashback from 2009, we are taken back to 1926, where we see Cecil’s mother (Carey in one of the aforementioned blink-and-you’ll-miss-them performances) raped by the owner of the cotton farm the family work on. When his father confronts the owner,  he is shot dead. Now an orphan, the owner’s mother (Redgrave) takes pity on the child, and brings him indoors to be a house slave.  Although he enjoys this work, when he reaches his teens he decides to take off and make his own way in the world.

After a dodgy start where he is unable to find work or food, he finally gains employment in a hotel, and this eventually leads to a position in a hotel in Washington. It is here that he meets his wife Gloria (Winfrey) and the pair have two children, before his career takes a whole new path. This new path is in 1957, when he is offered a job in the White House.

Accepting the role, he first serves under Dwight D Eisenhower (Williams) before witnessing a new boss enter the famous address every few years. He is there through significant events, such as the Kennedy assassination, and also becomes the first butler invited to a state dinner, when Nancy Regan insists he attend as a guest. However, Cecil’s work conflicts with the beliefs of his deeply-political son Louis (Oyelowo) who dedicates his time to fighting for equal rights for all African-Americans, and despite Gloria’s intervention the two look destined never to settle their differences.

Anyone who has ever had pride in their work will understand Cecil’s passion, however few of us have had to hold down a prestigious job while being denied basic rights by our employers. Yet, this is the political landscape when Cecil takes up his position. The reality is that the black workers get less pay than the white workers, and segregation was still a huge issue (indeed Allen recalled later in life how he couldn’t even use a public restroom when visiting his native Virginia in those days). Fittingly, the movie ends with the historical election of Barack Obama, which brings Cecil’s tale pretty much full circle.

The struggle of African-Americans has been very well-documented in other movies, but I can’t think of another film that does it from the very seat of the country’s power. Even without the race struggle, this would be a fascinating tale, as one genuine and humble man manages to make a difference just by going about his business.

Whitaker brings a quiet dignity to Cecil, and Winfrey, as Gloria, gives a performance on a par with that of her role in The Colour Purple. The people playing the different presidents do so with varying degrees of success – Marsden’s JFK never really convinces, and the usually fabulous Rickman seems to be playing a caricature of Regan. However, you get the idea, although it does somewhat take you out of the story. The script manages to veer away from schmaltz on the whole, and the historical issues are dealt with sensitively and objectively, rather than shoved down your throat. Director Daniels also makes use of archive footage in order to move the story along, which works well.

You don’t have to be a history buff or a political activist to enjoy this. It is the story of a man who is living his life, but just happens to be doing so at a time of huge conflict and upheaval.

Moving and thought-provoking, this is a great example of how to simply tell a story, and ultimately that is what the movies should be about.

In Cinemas Now!

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