The Butler is a sweeping historical drama inspired loosely by the life of real White House worker Eugene Allen, who worked at the Washington D.C. residence for thirty four years from 1952 to 1986 serving seven different Presidents. The film marks somewhat of a departure for director Lee Daniels whose previous work, including 2009’s Precious and 2012’s The Paperboy have been masterclasses in the seedy, the gritty and the downright uncomfortable.
The film is ambitious in its attempt to encapsulate more than half a century’s worth of racial struggle, ranging from the workers of the cotton fields of Georgia to the fight against apartheid in South Africa, and protagonist Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whittaker, provides the audience with eyes and ears on perhaps the most sensitive subject matter that each leader of the United States of America has had to face during their individual tenures. Gaines remains stoic and loyal to each President as they come and go, and his refusal to take a political stand leads to his rise in popularity and stature within the White House over his career as we him rise through the ranks and ultimately become head butler. But it is Cecil’s family life and the personal race related sacrifices that lie at the heart of The Butler. The filmmakers use artistic license and move away from the true story by giving him two sons, one whom becomes involved in the civil rights movements of the South, the other whom chooses to go and serve in the Vietnam war. These two separate subplots clearly provide a very convenient parallel between fightings for one’s country and what can be perceived as fighting against it, but the strength of acting and depth of backstory assure that the convenience of the plot does not seem cheap to the audience.
The marketing and publicity for the film has been very keen to emphasise that it is only loosely based on the real life of Eugene Allen, and the way the film plays out is very clearly constructed to feel reminiscent of a picture like Forrest Gump. Though not alike in terms of the latter’s whimsical comedy, The Butler and Forrest Gump share that peculiar motif of historical coincidence, being in the right place and the right time and having almost a direct impact on major events. This is often played out in short conversations Cecil has with different Presidents throughout the film, whether talking to John F. Kennedy about the Freedom Bus, or Ronald Reagan about South Africa. The impact he is shown to have on these men at times borders on the unbelievable, but the tone of the film allows this to happen without much opposition being felt.
The standard of acting and performance is exactly what one has come to expect from a Lee Daniels picture, excellent. Whittaker is humble yet commanding in the main role, a man surrounded by prejudice and pain but stoic in his morals and dependency. David Oyelowo as freedom fighting son Louis is impressive, portraying that almost unimaginable anger at the prejudice thrown toward his race whilst at the same time longing for the acceptance of his disapproving father. Special mention though has to go to Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s wife Gloria. Casting off her television personality immediately, Winfrey gives a stand out performance as a woman with many flaws, caught between her love for her revolutionary son and her conservative husband. It takes something special to be able to steal the scene away from the winner of the Best Actor Academy Award, but she manages to achieve it time and time again.
Though well up on it’s quota of schmaltz and at times running the danger of falling in with any number of Hallmark style historical TV dramas, The Butler carries with it a sharper and darker edge that I had not expected. Rather than skirting around the numerous instances of racial tension and tragedy that these characters encounter, Daniels’ old habit of not holding back can be identified in lingering scenes that portray the lynching of a black couple, the brutality of a Georgia cotton farm owner and numerous injustices committed upon people of colour by the Ku Klux Klan. These shocking scenes help to elevate the film above those lesser historical adaptations that seem to favour sentiment over harsh truth, and leads me to respond in the way I usually do to any film of this nature regarding civil rights or, for example, Jewish persecution, sheer disbelief and astonishment at just how recently these events occurred. It is so easy for younger generations to disregard these struggles as ‘times gone by’, and for this reason The Butler does a great service to history by highlighting the fact that in 1986, the year of Cecil’s retirement from the White House, issues of racial prejudice and persecution were still being confronted by Ronald Reagan, just as they were by Dwight D. Eisenhower on his very first day as butler. The film takes us all the way up to 2008 and the election of Barack Obama as the first African American President of America, resulting in an incredibly satisfying and emotional final few scenes that I defy anyone not to shed a tear at.
Overall, The Butler is more or less what I expected it to be. A well acted, well told story that toys with your emotions in a the way that only a well made historical drama can do. Don’t let the running time of two hours and fifteen minutes feel you in to thinking it will be slow, the picture is fast paced and rolls from President to President with still enough time to build believable and meaningful backstory for Cecil and the members of his family. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it among the nominees for Best Picture at the start January, nor would I be shocked to see Oprah Winfrey listed as one of the five best supporting female roles of the year.