For some reason, despite my not infrequent visits to the cinema, I’ve no recollection of ever seeing a trailer for “The Butler” and as a result, my expectations were formed mainly by the poster and the few snippets of information I’d been unable to avoid (I was particularly intrigued by the idea of Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan).
Going in to the cinema, I posted a glib comment on Facebook that I was looking forward to seeing “Benson: The Movie”, and I was really expecting a kind of travelogue approach to American history in the tone and style of “Forrest Gump”. Within the first ten minutes (hey look – Mariah Carey!), my preconceived ideas had been comprehensively corrected.
“The Butler” is a generational family saga as polemic, and the result is a frequently harrowing, sometimes uneven and occasionally self-indulgent film which takes us from the cotton fields of 1920’s Georgia to the 2009 White House of newly elected President Obama (of course).
The election of Barack Obama and the polarising effect it has had on social and political discourse in America has also empowered Hollywood to tackle one of the most shameful chapters of American – and human – history. Although it has, of course, been explored in film before, there has been a recent step change in the nature and candour of the films addressing slavery: “Lincoln”, “Django Unchained”, “The Butler” and “12 Years A Slave” have shone a light into some of history’s darkest corners, unflinchingly revealing the brutality, injustice and prejudices which feel so abhorrent to 21st Century sensibilities.
“The Butler” also joins the growing trend at the moment for films based on true stories, although again many liberties have been taken to deliver the messages and narrative the film’s makers wanted. Forrest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines who rises through faithful service and a chance encounter to become a butler in the White House staff of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Over the course of his career, he sees the Civil Rights movement emerge, conflict and eventually succeed through the administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan.
The tag line for the film is ‘One quiet voice can ignite a revolution’ but watching the film, you start to wonder who the owner of the quiet voice is. It’s certainly not Cecil, who spends much of the film being staunchly conservative and implacably opposed to rocking the boat, preferring to let events take their course and hope things turn out for the best. He frequently clashes with his eldest son who takes a much more proactive approach to driving the civil rights agenda forward and suffers not only at the oppressive hands of the state but also his father’s scorn and disappointment. At Cecil’s side is his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), who has a variety of under explored subplots of her own and brings us to the film’s central flaw: it’s not sure what story it wants to tell. Is it a gritty drama about a black family living in Washington DC and a son who gets involved in grass roots political protests or is it a high-stakes sweeping political saga of successive Presidents and their attempts to hold their nation together and move forward during a time of enormous social tension and upheaval? By attempting to be both simultaneously, it short changes many of the characters involved in the Gaines’ family story and also teeters on the brink of having the successive Presidents’ appearance be a gimmick rather than significant narrative drivers.
Whitaker gives an earnest, heartfelt performance as Cecil Gaines, but cuts an awkward and uncomfortable figure until the film reaches a point where Cecil’s age approximates his own while Winfrey seems like she’s never been away from serious, dramatic cinema and is every bit as good as Whitaker. The starry supporting cast is a mixed blessing for the film, threatening to become a distraction as it seems that every character is played by somebody. They really should have drawn the line at Lenny Kravitz though, who manages to create zero distinction between a character designing haute couture in Panem and one serving hors d’ouevres in the Oval Office.
But in a film so packed with star talent, it’s a testament to the strength of director’s – shall we say sense of self-belief – that it is frequently and almost insistently titled “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” for reasons which aren’t particularly clear. Given the script was written by the talented Danny Strong and based on the memoirs of Wil Haygood, I have my doubts that Lee Daniel’s “The Butler” is so very different from what anyone else’s “The Butler” would have been.
Ego aside, Lee Daniels has produced an impressive, if flawed, historical epic with an impressive cast and some engaging performances. It’s often uncomfortable to watch – and rightly so – but its unevenness works against it and the film takes a few lazy shortcuts towards the end: some characters simply disappear half way through (Terrance Howard) and it pretty much glosses right over the whole of the 1970s with some stock footage. Falling short of the seminal, landmark film it evidently wants to be, it remains a worthy piece of cinema. And Alan Rickman’s Ronald Reagan was actually pretty good.