If I were to suggest that The Butler is in the tradition of Forrest Gump you might dismiss it as too quaint and goofy for its own good. It’s not, although it could be accused of a similar over-keenness to simplify events of great historical import.
‘Inspired by a true story’ invariably means that liberties have been taken with the facts, so we’re never likely to know how close to reality is Lee Daniels’s fictionalised bio of the long-serving White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker).
But as an overview of the civil rights movement in the US it is a compelling reminder of racism’s scourge – and timely too, given Herr Morrison’s edict that people arriving in Oz seeking refuge from persecution be dehumanised as illegals.
Told as a memoir after his retirement, the long journey begins with the boy Cecil witnessing the callous murder of his sharecropper father, after which he was employed by the plantation owner as the ‘house nigger’. From that point we embark on a cavalcade of contemporary history, with Cecil’s eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) riding the tumultuous wave of Afro-Americans’ rise against discrimination, while Cecil himself remains a passive, if troubled, onlooker.
By his side throughout is wife Gloria, played by the larger-than-life Oprah Winfrey. She is, for mine, the elephant in the room. It’s not that Winfrey is not a capable actress – she is excellent – it’s just that as Gloria she can only ever be Oprah and, by her mere presence, she tends to overwhelm the scenes in which she features, especially when in tandem with Whitaker’s unflagging minimalism.
But it is the conflict between the new generation and the old, the future and the past, around which the film is constructed, taking events into the hearts and minds of those directly involved.
There is also a wonderful array of presidents, from boyish Kennedy to slimy Nixon and, best of all, Jane Fonda and Alan Rickman as Nancy and ‘Ronny’ Reagan.
Touching, forceful and entirely genuine, I loved it.
~ John Campbell