The Butler review

Applying a Forest Gump-like formula to the history of the civil rights movement in America, The Butler is a worthy but uneven piece left exhausted by the sheer sweep of history it tries to cover.

Based very loosely on a real butler who served under US administrations from Eisenhower to Reagan, it stars Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, a mild-mannered man whose strong work ethic and decency subverts the ridiculous stereotypes held about Black Americans. Whereas Tom Hank’s naive Gump powered like a wrecking ball through American milestones, Whitaker’s Cecil is a predominantly mute observer. His voiceover tells us he wears two faces, with one reserved solely for serving white people, but Whitaker’s performance is consistently reserved. An unquestionably great actor, he provides nuance in place of what would be a merely stolid performance by others, but the role doesn’t leave him much room to manoeuvre.

On the rare occasions he loses it, it is always with his son Louis (Oyelowo), whose spiky performance provides badly-needed momentum whenever he’s on screen. Conscious that he has to provide for his family, Cecil resolutely refuses to become engaged in the racial struggles of the time as there’s “no tolerance for politics at the White House”. But Louis is an idealist and activist, and finds himself frequently in jail after seminal events like cafe sit-ins and the burning of a Freedom Rider’s bus by the Klu Klux Klan.

Cecil and Louis’ contrasting ideals compete for the central message of the film, and only at the end does it come down on one side. Completing the soap opera dichotomy is Louis’ little brother Charlie, who ships out to Vietnam as Louis is joining the Black Panthers. There’s also alcoholic mother Gloria who’s played admirably by Winfrey, but her own story of oppression at the hands of drink and men gets lost amid wider struggles.

The Butler can never decide if it is predominantly family tale or a state of the union epic; inevitably, it is satisfying as neither. It has so much to say but is hampered by lack of structural focus and a script that varies wildly in tone. Beautifully-pitched scenes that cut between a carefully choreographed White House dinner and a race riot provide glimpses of what the film could be, but are undermined by a succession of identikit moments where an ignored-Cecil serves a president and his advisors just they’re discussing the dominant racial problems of the era.

These are made further problematic by the succession of famous American actors donning wigs and prosthetics to play the most powerful man in the world. As Eisenhower is taking the grave decision to have troops escort black students into southern schools, all you can see is Williams in a distracting bald cap. By the time Cusack pops up as an overtly slippery Nixon with a fake nose, we have entered pure panto territory and whatever ambitions the film had for serious history is long lost.

None of this is to say that The Butler isn’t enjoyable. It ploughs a fascinating topic with generally solid performances, and its set-pieces detailing abuses in American society are horrific in the best possible sense. Still, it lacks the insight and wit to elevate it to something more profound. The history of the civil rights movement deserves so much more.

The Butler at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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