WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Cecil Gaines grew up on a Georgia cotton plantation in the 1920s. When he saw the ruthless plantation owner rape his mother and murder his father, he was taken out of the cotton fields and brought into the house; a sympathetic and guilty matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) trained him to be a house servant – although that wasn’t the term used at the time.
As a teenager, he left the plantation and eventually found work in a local hotel, where his talents for service were recognised, propelling him first to a job at a country club in Washington and later to President Eisenhower’s White House.
Over more than three decades – and eight US presidents – Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) watched quietly from the shadows as a succession of administrations responded to the civil rights movement that finally saw Barack Obama elected to power.
Cecil’s home life was every bit as political, with his eldest son Louis (David Oyewolo) becoming a political activist while his younger son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) enlisted to fight in Vietnam, and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) did her best to overcome alcohol and keep the peace.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
This film is inspired by, rather than based on the life of White House butler Eugene Allen – in reality, his mother wasn’t raped, his father wasn’t murdered, his wife wasn’t an alcoholic, he had only one son who was neither a political activist nor a soldier in Vietnam – but what are a few dramatic tweaks between friends?
In truth, without these added dramatic flurries, this film would be little more than a series of episodic studies of African American history, as told from the view-point of a long-serving White House butler and his family. What is interesting is Cecil’s inability to respond to what he sees and hears around him; the butler clearly can’t tell the US President what he should be doing, but in Lee Daniels’ telling of the story, at least, as he grows in stature and respect, Cecil is increasingly asked what he thinks by the men with the power to change life for the country’s brutally downtrodden minority.
Forest Whitaker’s necessarily understated performance befits the eponymous servant and effectively contrasts with the rare moments of emotion he is able to display. Oprah Winfrey, in a rare return to acting, impressively portrays a woman far more complex than her real-life counterpart. The structure of the film, following Cecil Gaines for some many decades, causes some difficulty – when we first meet Whitaker, he looks far too old and when we David Oyewolo makes his first appearance, he looks old enough to be his own character’s father. The actors playing the Presidents generally struggle with whether to do an impersonation or simply give their own impression.
The historical background to this family drama will be familiar to many – particularly those well versed in America’s civil rights movement – presenting the valid question as to whether it’s aimed at black audiences brought up with stories about their own heritage or white audiences who could learn a thing or two about the struggle that eventually put a man with African heritage in the Oval Office.
The answer appears to come in a caption before the closing credits, which refers to “our fight” for equality through the civil rights movement, making it feel, all the more, that you’ve been watching a film made by black people for black people – it seems, shamelessly, to alienate white viewers, rather than making them feel welcome in the club.
The Butler feels like it thinks its a big and important film, but outside the US – and outside the black community – there is less to draw an audience into these relationships and while there’s much to admire in its ambition and the central performances, there’s not enough in the real-life story to engage an audience, which seems astonishing, considering the events of history that are depicted; although we are just watching people talking about these events or listening to contemporaneous media reports. It’s almost a case of how to take a fascinating and important story and make it feel somewhat pedestrian and banal. Watching history being made from the back of the room is less of a thrill than being on the frontline.
One peculiar aside of this film, which perhaps highlights continuing underlying racial tension within the industry itself, is that Warner Brothers tried to stop Lee Daniels using the word “butler” in the title, saying it infringed on the copyright of a black-and-white short film in its archives. The Motion Picture Association of America took the studio’s side, but after an expensive legal battle with the film’s US distributor, The Weinstein Company, it reached a compromise that the formal title of the film could be “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” – as long as the letters used for the director’s name were at least 75% of the size of the letters used for The Butler. Is this a traditional Hollywood studio trying to make things just a little more difficult than they need to for one of the industry’s most prominent black story-tellers?
At least no-one will now confuse this sprawling historical epic with the short black-and-white Warner Brothers comedy with which it initially shared a name.