Film Review: The Butler

| October 31, 2013


Words by James Tolcher 

Director: Lee Daniels 
 Danny Strong, Wil Haygood
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda and Robin Williams.
 As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect this man’s life, family, and American society.

WITH an impressive ensemble cast but an often heavy-handed script, The Butler has received mixed reviews, and Lee Daniels is accused of undermining a potentially powerful story by directing it towards melodrama. As someone who has had little exposure to American politics and history, I felt a little out of my depth by not having specific insights into the accuracy of the film, but luckily, was not prevented from enjoying the story. I even cried a little bit.

Forest Whitaker delivers an outstandingly subtle performance as Cecil Gaines, a White House butler who slowly helps to erode racial prejudice through hard work and honesty, and learns quickly (in the opening scene, even) that fighting back can mean certain death. The cruelty and hate captured in The Butler can frequently be confronting, though I really enjoyed the juxtaposition created by his son, Louis (David Oyelowo), an ambitious freedom fighter who lacks his father’s patience and demonstrates the other side of the coin by putting himself in dangerous positions, deliberately drawing attention to issues of racism by provoking his oppressors.

I did find things a little slow to begin with, but my attention was pretty wholly grasped from about a third of the way in. Oprah Winfrey comes in as Gloria Gaines, the wife of Cecil, and I found her performance, while only sometimes moving, was always enjoyable. The familiar faces get regularly rolled out, and while a lot of opinions express that the A-list actors were too distracting to play the many presidents, I’m convinced that I would have had trouble telling them apart otherwise. Politicians all look the same to me and I found that the recognizable actors helped me make distinctions between the swarms of white men in suits. Of course, I appreciate that not everyone is the uneducated pleb that I am.

I do agree with the regular criticisms that come with ‘based on a true story’ films, where liberties are taken and you’re never quite sure what’s real and what isn’t. While I know it’s fiction, as soon as I see those words, I can’t help but feel like I’m watching a news re-enactment and that absolutely everything happening ought to be 100% historically accurate, otherwise I feel like I’m being lied to. For example, Louis Gaines real-life counterpart apparently wasn’t the political activist he’s represented as in the film. I understand the need to flesh matters out to create a successful script, but for some reason it seems cheap.

The Butler (2013) Forest Whitaker (Screengrab)

Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines. || Image:

Most of the other criticisms of the film relate to its portrayal of the presidents. Apparently the portrayal of Ronald Reagan showed him to be unsympathetic to civil rights, though (from my naïve standpoint) I assumed matters involving invading South Africa were a little more complicated than what was let on, and I wasn’t convinced that it was the responsibility of the United States to sort out the rest of the world’s problems anyway. I mean it would be nice if they decided to undertake that cause, and I do consider North Korea (amongst other countries) to be a bit of a blotch on humanity, but maybe it’s better to mind your own business sometimes. I don’t know, I’m not the President of the United States, and regardless, Alan Rickman as Reagan was charming as always, and I was much more distracted by his pretty face than all of those politics.

I felt pretty generous with The Butler, and though it might not be the most historically accurate or insightful portrayal of eight different U.S. Presidents, I thought the real story lay elsewhere. The heartbreaking and heartwarming moments of a family and of a people coming out of oppression connected with me, and I recommend it for the personal story it tells, rather than the large one.

MM 8/10 

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Category: FEATURED, FILM, Uncategorized

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