The Butler

THE BUTLER. Starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Fonda, Terrence Howard, Robin Williams, John Cusack, Liev Schreiber, and Alan Rickman. Directed by Lee Daniels. Rated M (Mature themes, violence and coarse language). 132 min.

This is an American historical film that was inspired by a 2008 story published in the Washington Post by Wil Haygood, titled “A Butler Well Served by This Election”. The film was inspired by a true story about the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American, who served as a butler in the White House for 34 years. The film canvases Allen’s service to 8 different Presidents of the USA. In the movie, Allen is known as Cecil Gaines.

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) was born on a cotton farm in the US, and had a traumatic family life. The film tells of his father being murdered by the white master of a house, and he was trained as a “house nigger” by the master’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who felt sorry for him. She taught him how to serve others.

Cecil finds work in a fashionable hotel where his efficient obsequiousness attracts the attention of a White House aide. With the aide’s support, he is hired by the White House, where he endures humiliation as a black person in ways that he has been familiar with. But Cecil is proud of being a butler and loves the rituals and formality of his role, and he is very good at his job. It is a butler’s job to “see what it is that they need”, and “you hear nothing, you only serve”. He is told that “when in a room with white people, the room should feel empty when you are in it”.

Cecil has a son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who joins the civil rights movement and is arrested as a radical. His other son died in the Vietnam war. As Cecil services the White House, it is Louis, who introduces us to the realities that lie in the world outside it. While Cecil is looking after his Masters in the White House, his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) waits at home. In frustration, she takes to alcohol and is tempted with a sexual dalliance with another man (Terrence Howard).

Cecil’s involvement with 8 Presidents provides telling glances across the history of the civil rights movement in the US. The film canvasses the broad sweep of the early development of the civil rights movement, examines the atrocities of the Klu Klux Klan, analyses the Black Power struggle of the 1960s, and moves on to Barack Obama’s election that held enormous promise out to black America in 2008. The film shows the responses of the various Presidents who Cecil served. While his Presidents ponder what to do about blatant racial discrimination, Cecil brings them sandwiches and tea. Cecil knows, but observes quietly and hardly ever interferes. The film presents him as an unassuming person, who also happens to be an enduring witness to incredible historical events. Actual archival footage is used effectively to tell us what is happening.  

It is inevitable that a film such as this has to confront the accuracy of its story-line. In that respect, it is controversial. There is argument, for example, about whether it is unreasonably critical of Reagan’s approach to apartheid, the killing of Cecil’s father is not quite as depicted, and Jane Fonda delivers a brief, unnervingly sharp performance as Reagan’s wife, Nancy.

This is an ambitious, sweeping period drama that is melodramatic. As it moves from President to President, a talented ensemble cast passes before our eyes. There is Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Some impersonations work better than others, but all the time there is a sustained, powerful performance by Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines. His acting is as subtle as it is effective, and Oprah Winfrey is wonderful as his wife, Gloria.

In the final run, the dramatic power of the movie loses out to the expansiveness of its historical sweep. But the film presents us with a very moving and powerful account of significant events related to the growth of civil rights in America. There is never any question that this is a film about racial inequality, and the need to fight racial discrimination in every way.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Hopscotch Films.

Out October 31, 2013.

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