DVD Review: The Butler
The Butler is a movie that uses a “based on actual events’ premise to take us through the inspirational life of White House Butler, Cecil Gaines played by mercurial Forest Whitaker. It should be said at the outset that the ‘based on’ aspect isn’t highly accurate but the timeline of events that transpired during the 34 year career of the butler are an incredible snapshot on American politics, life and culture. The real life on which the script is based belongs to Eugene Allen who joined the White House as a ‘pantry man’ in 1952 and retired in 1986 after serving eight Presidents and their families. He passed away in 2010 at the age of 90 after a 65 year marriage to his wife Helene who died in 2008. He had attained the highest height of his profession as Maître d’hôtel of the White House.
Danny Strong’s script version is based on an article by Will Haygood and starts as a story which sees a young man escaping the racist cage of the cotton fields to pursue his dreams. In his early life we see his father killed while standing up to the plantation owner (Alex Pettyfer) who raped his mother. We then see Cecil find work as a ‘house nigger’ in the perceived safety of the mansion’s caretaker (Vanessa Redgrave) where he taught to serve. Once Cecil hits the road he is taught the wisdom of serving through the eyes of a number of influences that nurture his ability and he is discovered in a hotel serving leading businessmen and politicians which opens the door to the highest facility in the land.
Over Cecil’s career we see him interact with leading historical Presidential figures as they engage with the key cultural decisions of their time in office. Starting with Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower we walk through the oval offices of John F. Kennedy played by James Marsden, Liev Schreiber with slicked hair as Lyndon B. Johnson, the big nose on John Cusack in order to play Richard Nixon and my pick of the bunch was Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Rumours were indicating President Obama would make an appearance but they were quickly dismissed as not appropriate for a President and he along with Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were confined to archive footage. A pleasant surprise was Jane Fonda’s portrayal of Nancy Reagan who gave the strength of the First Lady a certain spark.
While the real Eugene Allen only had one son, the screen version of Cecil has two sons who provide the contrast in the script. Cecil’s oldest boy Louis travels south to Fisk University and becomes involved in the fight for civil rights that takes our story through the Freedom Bus controversy of Alabama and the Black Panther movements. His younger brother wants to fight for his country and goes to Vietnam. All of these changes within the nation seen through the eyes of the Gaines family tell of the culture shock as one generation fought for their rights while an older generation felt constrained by years of racial oppression.
The stress of the change is felt through the eyes of their mother Gloria played by Oprah Winfrey. As a mother she protects her boys, stands by her man and can’t understand the secrecy of her husbands job and white man’s politics. The tension is felt through family interactions and a marriage going cold as Gloria uses drink to put up with her husband’s long hours and a son on the front line of the civil rights movement.
Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey give great performances supported by an extensive cast which includes the likes of Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz as fellow White House staff and also an easy to dislike friend of the family played by Terrence Howard. Director Lee Daniels who went from nursing home receptionist, to casting director with his own agency to movie producer then director has delivered a great fly on the wall experience from the 1950s to the 1980s of American civil rights. The man who brought us ‘Precious’ has developed the art of story to envelope the political commentary. The movie finishes with the Gaines living to see Obama’s inauguration something felt unbelievable in the times of the movie’s key events.
Rating: M Violence and offensive language.
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