Making a mess of civil rights history

The Butler (M). Director: Lee Daniels. Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Robin Williams, John Cusack, Alan Rickman. 132 minutes

Don't misunderstand the title card: 'Based on the true story' (as opposed to 'a true story') refers to the history of the civil rights movement in the US, and not to the central premise of this film, about an African-American butler who serves at the White House under eight successive presidents during these tumultuous decades of the 20th century. As appealing as that conceit is on paper, a conceit is just what it is; the central (fictional) character, Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), is like the Forrest Gump of black America; he is not mentally challenged, but he is a man whose innocence is tested over many years by his incidental proximity to major figures and significant events.

The film follows Cecil from his childhood on a cotton plantation, and his elevation to the homestead after he witnesses his father's murder at the hands of the plantation owner's adult son. It portrays his early aptitude as a 'house negro' and his eventual arrival at the White House, where he becomes a fixture for the decades to follow. During that time America sees the dawn of the civil rights movement, the rise and assassination of its great leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, the Vietnam War, and a string of presidents who each grapples in his own way with the problem of race relations in his country.

The idea of viewing these events through the eyes of a black White House butler is so tantalising, that it is utterly disappointing to discover that The Butler is in fact a sloppy, soppy mess, that snaps rather than tugs at the heart strings, has been packed with fine actors but barely a single substantial character, and which makes plenty of heavy handed points about the civil rights movement without offering any new insights into it.

With all due respect to Barack Obama, Winfrey is a major problem in this film. It's not that she can't act — there is technically little to fault in her portrayal of Cecil's long-suffering wife Gloria. But the subplot regarding their tense home life — her alcoholism, an affair with a neighbour, all rooted in her sense of discontent regarding the secrecy and time demands of her husband's job — has been inflated beyond necessity, as if to justify Winfrey's presence by allowing her to sullenly chew the scenery while more significant events are happening elsewhere.

Far more effective and thematically relevant is the major subplot regarding Cecil and Gloria's son Louis (Oyelowo), and his own active participation in the civil rights movement. The contrast here is potent: Louis is raging against The Man, while his father is dutifully serving The Man drinks. This tests their relationship, as well as Cecil's resolve regarding the rightness of his choice of career. A sequence in which Louis participates as a university student in a sit-in at a segregated restaurant proves to be the film's most powerful moment.

Even here, the power is diminished by the pointed juxtaposition of this peaceful protest that turns ugly, with Cecil's first night on the job serving food and drinks to rich, powerful white men. Daniels lacks subtlety, and his refusal to let his audience draw their own insights and reach their own conclusions is one of The Butler's great weaknesses.

But not its greatest weakness. That would be the choice of A-listers who file past to lazily caricature the various presidents of the United States under whom Cecil serves. I won't say much about this other than that the casting of Williams as Dwight Eisenhower is baffling, and Cusack's Richard Nixon is downright laughable. These are fine actors who have been cast for their audience appeal rather than their suitability for the roles. That being said, who'd have thunk that Alan Rickman could look so much like Ronald Reagan?

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Lee Daniels, The Butler, Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Robin Williams



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