The Butler – ★★★

The last few years have been rather mixed for director Lee Daniels. Having made the gritty and acclaimed drama Precious (2009), he then followed it up with his hot and cold thriller The Paperboy (2012). But through the former, Daniels is hoping that the Academy will take notice of him again with his latest film, the historical biopic The Butler. Based on the remarkable true story of servant Eugene Allan, the film not only bolsters one of the best ensemble casts of 2013 (Forest Whittaker, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda and Robin Williams amongst many others) but also delves into the important themes of American society over the course of thirty years. Autobiographic films just keep on coming for us cinema-loving folk….

SYNOPSIS: In 1920s Georgia, young Cecil Gaines witnesses the brutal murder of his father at the hands of white employers. When he gets older (played by Whittaker), he starts to learn the basics about becoming a butler whilst working at a hotel. This eventually leads to him getting the incredible opportunity of serving at the White House which becomes his job for the next thirty years. During his time there, he experiences different changes with American history as well as staying loyal to the many presidents he serves for which include John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), Richard Nixon (Cusack) and Ronald Regan (Rickman). However his job also affects his home life as he tries to deal with both his alcoholic wife Gloria (Winfrey) and his rebellious activist son Louis (Oyelowo), a man who struggles to come to terms with racism.

Real-life films are becoming more prominent in Hollywood nowadays as Lee Daniels takes us on a fascinating if harsh journey of American history. Through the eyes of our titular character, the film deals with racism in a brutal way with the opening shot showing two black men hanging from a signpost. That is then swiftly followed by an even more shocking scene of young Cecil witnessing two horrible acts committed on his parents and is a terrible reminder of the cruelty that many African-American people went through. Daniels ensures that this theme runs throughout as he wastes no time in moving the film’s timeline forward as Cecil grows up quickly and embarks on the beginning of his ‘butler’ tenure. The focus of his time working in the White House makes compelling viewing as we see the various individuals he serves under and their differing views about the state of affairs in America (e.g. JFK’s concern for racism). But just as interesting is the family segments as we see Cecil having to put up with his wife constantly complaining about his work and more importantly, his troubled relationship with eldest son Louis. Both men are part of different generations and struggle to see eye-to-eye when it comes to the race issues as Louis ridicules his father about serving under white men of power whilst he himself suffers plenty of abuse over the years. The film also does a great job of capturing the historical changes through the use of prosthetic makeup. Not only does it deal with the aging process of our main characters but is also used meticulously on the various actors portraying real-life figures. Even when we see Cecil and Gloria at an old age, their mannerisms work well with the amount of makeup placed on them. Given the success of a film like Precious, Daniels does a terrific job of assembling such a talented and prestige cast to grab our attention with the central actors deserving the most attention. Leading from the front, Forest Whittaker carries the burden with his likeable portrayal of Cecil as he conveys a mixture of humbleness and sensitivity to his role as we see our main man become frustrated about his duties at work and home. Just as effective and equally great is Oprah Winfrey as she reminds us of her capable acting skills with a showy and troubled performance as a woman who struggles to accept her husband’s responsibilities. The support cast all have their moments to shine with the likes of Jane Fonda, Alan Rickman and Robin Williams making valuable contributions while British actor David Oyelowo stands out most as the rebellious Louis. It’s also great to see Cuba Gooding Jr. back on form as he and Lenny Kravitz lend humour to their roles as Cecil’s butler colleagues.

However a constant problem with some biopic dramas is that Hollywood has a tendency to inject a dramatic punch to a simple story just to try and gain more critical attention. While the story differs from that of the real-life individual Eugene Allen, it is frustrating to read about Allen’s tale compared to what Gaines goes through particularly as the former had an easier upbringing. A couple of sub-plots are also tossed aside such as Gloria’s infidelity with neighbour Howard (a wasted Terence Howard) which initially becomes important only to then disappear into thin-air. Even the inclusion of high-profile names bring the film down with some actors coming and going. This becomes the case for the likes of Mariah Carey and Vanessa Redgrave as both are wasted and nothing more then glorified cameos while you never really believe that Williams and Cusack in particular are playing these presidents apart from being disguised in facially-altered makeup.

VERDICT: Forest Whittaker and Oprah Winfrey both excel in this intriguing yet flawed film which does suffer from a couple of mis-castings and historical inaccuracy but still manages to teach us an important lesson about America and its harsh past.

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