The Butler

Despite feeling like two different films in one, The Butler tells an important tale of America's Civil Rights movement.
Tom Glasson
Published on November 01, 2013


The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), an African American man who grew up on the cotton fields of the South only to then serve for decades as a butler in the White House. His tenure lasted from the administrations of Eisenhower all the way through to Reagan, and through his eyes director Lee Daniels shows us the intimate, unseen moments behind some of America's most turbulent periods. From Jackie Kennedy sitting alone, blood-soaked and weeping, to Richard Nixon foraging for snacks in the kitchen, Gaines dutifully tended to their needs — at once indispensable and yet imperceptible so as to not even seem present in the room. 

While presidents came and went, however, the issue of race relations remained ever-present and increasingly divisive in the United States, and it is that which forms the focus of Daniels' film. This subject is explored not just through Gaines' story as butler to those most possessed of the power to effect change but through his son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who became a passionate black rights activist, travelling on the Freedom Bus, working alongside Martin Luther King and even becoming a Black Panther. 

This use of concurrent plot lines occasionally hits home, most notably when a lavish state dinner at the White House is intercut with the infamous Woolworth's diner sit in, during which black customers were bashed and abused for ignoring segregated seating. More often, though, the White House scenes feel like they're from an entirely different movie; a cavalcade of celebrity impersonations ranging from the impressive (Alan Rickman as Reagan) to the outright bizarre (John Cusack as Nixon). Given the poignancy (if also Forrest Gump-esque convenience) of the son's civil rights vignette, it's tough not to feel The Butler would've been better served by excluding the presidents entirely, perhaps save for the occasional use of archival footage. 

Gaines is based on the former White House butler Eugene Allen, and in bringing him to life, Whitaker turns in arguably the performance of his career. He masterfully demonstrates the 'two faces' worn by African Americans during the decades of racial tension: one that's real, vulnerable and angry, the other that's designed to calm white people and keep them from feeling threatened. Oprah Winfrey also puts in a powerful performance as Gaines' wife — her first film role in 15 years since Beloved.

Theirs is a marriage no less turbulent than the world around it, but its foundation is sound and their tenderness is genuinely moving through both the highs and the lows. Around them, the supporting cast is enormous, including Robin Williams, James Marsden, Cuba Gooding Jr, Lenny Kravitz, Liev Schreiber, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave and Terrence Howard. 

The Butler may at times stray into sanctimonious territory, even veering towards parody, but its honest depiction of some of America's darkest days and the performances by its leads make it more than worthwhile, delivering an ambitious, powerful and emotional two hours of cinema.


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