Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) has been the Chief Butler for eight consecutive US presidents, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Working intimately with these world leaders at the White House, from his unique vantage point Cecil Gaines witnesses radical transformations in American history through the civil rights movement to Vietnam and the Cold War - and sees how those changes affect his life and family. (Based on a true story.)
Review by Louise Keller:
Focusing on the advent and development of black rights and with Forrest Whitaker as our guide, we embark on a fascinating walk through the annals of American history; the pit stops are signposted by the string of Presidents whom The Butler serves. Based on the story of long time White House butler Eugene Allen, Lee Daniels' embellished narrative (based on an article by Wil Haygood called 'A Butler Well Served by This Election') introduces us to Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) whose journey as a young boy from the cotton fields in Georgia to the White House in Washington is bumpy and coloured with all shades of grey.
It's a story about black and white America, protests, revolts and changing attitudes, juxtaposing Cecil's life against recognisable historic moments and the Presidents of the time. Overall engaging with sympathetic performances by Whitaker and TV Queen Oprah Winfrey, there is much to absorb, although the 132 minute running time lags and drags, making us feel bogged down by detail instead of allowing the narrative to carry us through.
There are voyeuristic moments - like John and Jackie Kennedy's arrival at the White House and intimate moments between Cecil and the various Presidents, who take him in their confidence. Key casting is entertaining in itself with Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, James Marsden as JF Kennedy, Liv Schreiber as Lyndon B, Johnston, John Cusack as Richard Nixon and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Minka Kelly gives a good semblance of Jackie Kennedy as does Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. There is humour, too.
The grit of the film occurs outside the White House, when the central focus is on Cecil's family, the conflicts it faces and the changing times of America. Winfrey is wonderful as Cecil's wife Gloria - warm, strong, playful and very real. Gloria's battle against loneliness results in a drinking problem but her sentiments are encapsulated when she puts into perspective the importance she places on what happens in Her house as opposed to that of the President's. The main conflict arises on account of their two sons - the younger Charlie (Isaac White) who goes to Vietnam because he wants to fight FOR his country and the older Louis (David Oyelowo, excellent) who joins the Freedom Writers and the Black Panthers in a fight AGAINST his country. The clash between Cecil and Louis provides one of the film's main story strands.
Daniels paints a vivid picture of all the changing times - from the pivotal moment after Cecil's mother has been raped and his father shot in the cotton fields in front of him, when Vanessa Redgrave's lady of the house trains the young Cecil to be 'a house nigger', telling him 'The room should feel empty with you in it."
The film has parallels with Peter Morgan's The Audience, in which we are treated to a tantalising cocktail of history and personal insights through Helen Mirren as the Queen as she gives an audience to the 12 British Prime Ministers who held power over her 60 year rein. While The Butler offers many enjoyable moments, it feels as though Daniels has tried to cram too many details and deliver too much information. A walk, albeit a historic one should be more leisurely.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It was certainly an extraordinary life, from cotton slave youngster seeing his father shot dead by a white plantation owner's son (who had just raped his mother) to his tearful moment in retirement, watching Barack Obama elected President. Cecile Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is thus a witness to America's civil rights history, one of the defining movements of modern American history. Likewise the Vietnam war is a defining stamp of American history, both having had enormous, divisive impacts on her people.
Having lived through it all - serving six Presidents - Cecile Gaines had a unique perspective, and the film does capture this quite well. We see the eruptions from his perspective, a black servant inside the White House who learnt his trade as a 'house nigger' in the South.
But it's overly ambitious. Danny Strong's screenplay tries to cover all the bases, touch on all the historic milestones, through Cecile's eyes, through Cecile's life. The result is rather episodic, like getting Postcards from History.
Meticulously cast - and Whitaker is a perfect vehicle for the Gaines persona; whether physically accurate or not, his characterisation is entirely authentic. The professional butler at all times, he feels every wound of the civili rights movement, but refrains from speaking, even though he is at the nerve centre of American policy making.
We are voyeurs to history as we meet several Presidents - Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, James Marsden as Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Johnson, Alan Rickman as Reagan - as well as Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan and Nelsan Ellis as Martin Luther King. Inevitably, our patchy recall of the past 60 years of American (and world) history is resuscitated by these vignettes, but it is Cecile who is actually the focus. This works for and against the film's ultimate resonance; can we stay tuned in despite close ups of him arranging the Presidential silver on the vast dining table.
Cecile also has to deal with a revolutionary son, Louis, (David Oyelowo) and this relationship is as central to the story as is his relationship with Grace (Oprah Winfrey) who had to give up the drink to manage.
There are many interesting scenes, powerful and moving scenes, but they seem to be hanging on a string of events. Luckily, Whitaker's performance draws it all together, as superficial as some of the treatment necessarily has to be for the sake of commercial filmmaking. It feels as though this should have been developed and researched further, and made into a six part mini series to get all the juice out of it.
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BUTLER, THE (M)
CAST: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, John Cusack, Robin Williams, Alan Rickman, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, Melissa Leo, Mariah Carey, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, David Oyelewo
PRODUCER: Lee Daniels, Cassian Elwes, Buddy Patrick, Laura Ziskin
DIRECTOR: Lee Daniels
SCRIPT: Danny Strong (article by Wil Haygood)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Andrew Dunn
EDITOR: Joe Klotz
MUSIC: Rodrigo Leão
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Tim Galvin
RUNNING TIME: 132 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 31, 2013