D: Lee Daniels / 132m
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr, Lenny Kravitz, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Olivia Washington, Yaya DaCosta, Clarence Williams III, Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda
Based on the life of Eugene Allen (here re-named Cecil Gaines), The Butler covers over eighty years of American history, and focuses on the civil rights movement as seen through the eyes of Gaines, his family, and the various Presidents he served in the White House. Beginning in 1926 where the young Gaines and his mother and father work on a cotton plantation, the film progresses through the decades touching on various important political events and attempts to establish the effect these events have on Gaines (Whitaker) and his family – wife Gloria (Winfrey), and two sons, Louis (Oyelowo) and Charlie (Isaac White, Elijah Kelley).
While Cecil’s climb from plantation worker’s son to White House servant takes up the first part of the movie, and reflects the prevailing attitudes surrounding race and social integration (or lack of it), there’s a hint throughout these scenes that this is merely the build up to the central story; there’s a lack of real incident once Cecil leaves the plantation and too much time passes as well. Once he begins work at the White House it becomes clear that Louis isn’t as impressed by his father’s job, and sees his father’s easy acceptance of his place within a society struggling to achieve equality as a betrayal.
As Louis becomes more and more involved in the civil rights movement – he rides the Freedom Bus, works for Martin Luther King, joins the Black Panthers – we see the widening gulf between father and son at the same time as a nation begins to unify itself. It’s this disparity that offers the most drama, while the political machinations and behind the scenes decision-making make for an interesting counterpoint to the home-spun drama being played out.
It’s an interesting story, and one that shines a rare light on the personal side of political and social upheaval witnessed in the US during the 50s, 60s and 70s, and features strong performances from all concerned. However – and it’s a big however – the movie has one major flaw: in attempting to cover so much ground it ends up being largely superficial and only fleetingly involving. Thanks to Danny Strong’s wayward script, scenes pass with little purpose other than to reinforce Gaines’ apathy with regard to the fight for racial equality, and after the sixth or seventh or eighth time they become tedious and wearing (we get it already!). Likewise for Louis’s involvement with the movement: yes, he’s committed, yes he sees his father as a sell-out, yes he feels with his head rather than his heart – all this is laboured and needlessly pedantic. Gloria and Charlie are given small moments throughout as a result, and the larger family dynamic is reduced to odd scenes set around the dinner table; the only problem is there’s no meat being served. There are scenes that never amount to much: Gaines’ friend Howard (Howard) trying to seduce Gloria; a late-night encounter in the kitchens with Nixon (Cusack).
And then there are the Presidents, Eisenhower (Williams), Kennedy (Marsden), Johnson (Schreiber), Nixon and Reagan (Rickman). Each actor has only two or three scenes to work with, and while each does well with what he’s given, they all suffer from the same approach: show the man in the highest office in the land struggling to decide what to do (though Kennedy comes off best in this regard). At least the movie stops short of Gaines acting as some kind of authoritative guide, offering the best advice at the right time; but he does remain annoyingly non-partisan, except for the issue of equal pay between the white and the black employees at the White House (his own small battle for equality that is shown as the only part of the struggle he’s ever interested in).
The performances, though, are good, and while some of the cast are given little to work with – Kravitz, Washington, Howard, and surprisingly, Winfrey – they rise above the script’s limitations to convey a sense of what it was like to live during those troubled times. Whitaker carries the movie with ease, and while it’s a little difficult to accept him as a man in his late twenties (when he takes over the part from Aml Ameen, himself a twenty-eight year old playing a fifteen year old), he displays a confidence and conviction that helps his character immensely. Whitaker is an actor who can be unpredictable at times, but here he reins in any of his usual eccentricities and maintains the stolid, often resigned approach of a man who feels he has found his place in the world and doesn’t need to reach any further.
As with all historical dramas where real events are being portrayed there are inaccuracies and fabrications galore, but while this is sometimes glaring – Reagan’s indifference to civil rights, Eugene Allen’s son Charles wasn’t the political activist Louis is – they’re not so glaring that they detract from the story that’s being told. This is based on the life of Eugene Allen, and if people are offended or upset by any deviation from “the truth” or historical fact, then they should avoid this movie completely.
On the technical side, Daniels directs with an increasingly confident flair but is hampered by the script’s lack of dramatic focus (it still feels odd to say that about a movie that appears to be all drama), and has no answer for its often stop/start structure. That said, the movie is beautifully lensed by Andrew Dunn, and the production design by Tim Galvin, allied with Lori Agostino, Erik Polczwartek and Jason Baldwin Stewart’s art direction, means the movie is always handsome to look at. Alas, Rodrigo Leão’s score is intrusive and overcooks the emotional beats.
Rating: 5/10 – not the incisive overview of the civil rights movement it should have been, nor the family drama it could have been, The Butler will probably do well in the Awards season, but there’s a lack of substance, and focus, here that holds it back from being a truly good movie; good performances aside, this has little to recommend it if you already know enough about its subject matter.