The Butler (2013) Directed by Lee Daniels. With Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Banner, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Robin Williams, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, James Marsden, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda.
This fourth directorial offering from Lee Daniels traces the lifetime of Cecil Gaines, covering his childhood experiences as a slave, working in the the cotton fields, to his time employed as a butler during the administrations of various Presidents in the White House. With an impressively ambitious narrative scope, Daniels charts the past 90yrs, or so, of American history, covering both the US and South African civil rights movements, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam war and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. All that, and much more in just 132mins.
Of course, with so much ground to cover, a certain amount of skimming over, in places, is required. Equally, dealing with such broad and far reaching topics can sometimes make a film feel more like a history lesson/documentary than an emotionally resonant piece of cinema. Thankfully, Daniels has assembled a brilliant cast of actors, headed up by Forest Whitaker in the central role who is supported exceptionally, by Oprah Winfrey. Together, they bring depth and heart to what is, at times, an upsetting experience. Of course, papering over the harsh realities of the shame that pervades through much of the United States’ very recent history would, in itself, be a crime, and considering the 12A certificate, the film does a good job of not shirking the horror and cruelty of racism.
As well as being a film about the slow, steady change of attitudes in a country that had turned a blind eye to evil for so long, it also manages to convey a lot of humour and love. There is, also, something inherently amusing about watching Alan Rickman doing his best Ronald Reagan impression.
The Butler is one of those films that you don’t really say you enjoyed, in the traditional sense of the word. At times it will make your blood boil with anger, and of course, there’s always an undercurrent of extreme sadness. Perhaps, from a storytelling point of view, it over-stretches itself, but in the end, is probably best remembered for its heartfelt characterisations and smaller, intimate moments. 3.5/5