The Butler is classy – but too eager to teach

Simon Thomson
Cert 12a | Three stars

THE Butler examines African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights in the 20th century through events in the life of White House butler Cecil Gaines, who served seven presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan. It is essentially Forrest Gump, with moral didacticism instead of heart-warming whimsy.

It is clear from the outset that The Butler does not trade in subtlety. It opens in 1926, in Gaines’ boyhood home of Macon, Georgia. He is the son of cotton farm labourers, but after the farm’s white owner rapes his mother, and shoots his father, Gaines is taken in by the farmer’s family and trained to be a butler. The skills he learns are his passport out of the South, and working in hotels eventually leads to his hiring as one of eight butlers at the White House, where he serves coffee in the Oval Office during every important discussion pertaining to civil rights between 1957 and 1986.

Lee Daniels, who previously directed the Oscar-nominated Precious, is clearly a man who likes to teach his audience, and if you accept that The Butler is going to be a series of instructive historical vignettes, crow-barred into an emotionally manipulative family drama, then there is some enjoyment to be had.

Gaines is played by the ever engaging Forrest Whitaker, whose performance is dignified and understated; a concession to his character’s profession, which demands that a room should feel empty when he is in it. His wife, Gloria, is played by Oprah Winfrey, and whether she is discussing potato salad, acting drunk, or disco-dancing, her celebrity, and secular sainthood, mean she is entertaining for the wrong reasons. But really it is the stream of stunt-casted US presidents that carries the movie along; from Robin Williams as Eisenhower, to Alan Rickman in a surprising turn as Reagan. John Cusack and Liev Schreiber struggle under disfiguring prosthetic noses as Nixon and Johnson respectively, while James Marsden and Minka Kelly are too pretty as the idealised Kennedys. Ford and Carter are skipped over, but the casting of infamous liberal Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan is quite gratifying.

The main story runs in parallel with that of Gaines’ son, Louis, played from the age of 13 by 37-year-old British actor David Oyelowo (Spooks). Louis’ story is the weakest part of the film. His inevitable progression from sit-ins with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, to being a Freedom Rider, a confidante of Martin Luther King, a Black Panther, and an anti-Apartheid campaigner may place the butler’s story in a broader socio-political context, and fuel family tensions, but it serves the plot too neatly for it ever to seem credible.

The film never satisfactorily resolves the central tension of a black man finding advancement and a degree of freedom through a life of service and acting in a way that is acceptable to white America.

The Butler is worth watching, but more as part of the GCSE history curriculum than as entertainment.