Plot – As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect this man’s life, family, and American society – The Butler.
Director – Lee Daniels
Released – November 2013
Sure, he’s made more than one excellent film, but it’s his outstanding performance in The Butler that made me sit up and take notice of just how good Forest Whitaker can be. Giving life to the character of Cecil as he navigated the racial turmoil of Southern American cotton fields to eventually become the butler for numerous American presidents. In a manner that’s both fascinating and touching at the same time.
Whitaker masterfully managed the physical and emotional transformation as the film progressed, ensuring that emotional high and low lands and you end up caring deeply about a character who due to his position within the Whithouse and many hardships had to remain almost neutral during some countries most defining moments, including racial segregation, riots, the Vietnam war, and political assassinations.
A lesser actor would have struggled: A subplot involving Cecil’s requests for equal pay and opportunity has an amusing payoff, and the movie’s final line appropriately belongs to him. His character does evolve over time, which leads to an emotional moment near the end.
The extremely talented supporting cast also do incredibly well in their roles, Winfrey especially is outstanding in a sometimes demanding performance as Cecil’s wife Gloria. while Oyelowo excels in a role that progresses from naïve student to Black Panther throughout the course of the film and more than once coming into conflict with not only the law but also Cecil due to their differing views of how to attain progress for Black Americans.
There is a reason this film has been linked to Forrest Gump due to the large number of famous names that pop up throughout and I can see where these people are coming from, including James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, Robin Williams as Dwight D Eisenhower, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan and John Cusack as Richard Nixon, but each performs well with what they are given, which is just enough to give a flavour of what it was like to work in the White House at that time and the political atmosphere, without taking away from what is at heart Cecils story.
Although Daniels does a good job of highlighting most of the important moments that happen throughout Cecils and the extended Gaines family, there is a tendency in places to jump from one period to the next in an attempt to get as much in as possible during the runtime, meaning that some elements felt truncated and some aspects of the film that you feel might have been important, were left out entirely. Maybe a TV miniseries would have worked better and allowed not only extended character development but also given the makers time to tie up all the subplots that we were treated too but never sufficiently tied up.
Surprisingly unlike a lot of the historical biographies that have come out recently, Daniels chose to film The Butler with a straight narrative rather than one that jumps back and forth between periods, while also keeping the cinematography as simple and unassuming as possible, just like the character the film is centred around. Although this works well and makes the plot easy to follow, you can’t help but feel that more could have been done to give the film more of a visual flair.
The Butler isn’t a masterpiece but is both an interesting and inspiring story that accomplishes a lot during its packed running time, a film where the lead character struggles to keep his grace and dignity despite challenging and extremely difficult circumstances.