Lee Daniels' The Butler Review
More than just "Forrest Gump borne out of slavery"
Boasting an all-star cast, Lee Daniels’ fourth feature film takes us on a whistle-stop tour of US history, attempting to look at things from the perspective of the glorified house slave, a White House butler.Loosely based on the real life of such a butler, whose service spanned four decades, covering some seven Presidents, The Butler strikes out with a provocative look at the young life of the lead character, Cecil Gaines, who watches helplessly as his mother and father both suffer at the hands of their white plantation owners. Gaines grows into an ambitious young man – played from young adulthood through to old age by Forest Whitaker – and eventually earns a place in the White House, tending to the needs of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
He watches the world unfold from within the palace, as the tides change with slavery, segregation and racism; as Presidents rise and fall – whether assassinated, shamed, or merely at the end of their term – and as the country evolves from a place where black and white men had different water fountains to drink from to a place where a black President could be elected. The Butler largely succeeds in painting an interesting look at these troubled times, using a dual narrative of what Gaines witnesses within the White House, juxtaposed with his strained family life back homeA lonely, alcoholic wife and two sons who chose very different paths: one electing to fight for his country in Vietnam, and one electing to fight against his country as a part of the Black Panthers. Partly due to the fragmented style of the first narrative, the second narrative often feels more compelling, although David Oyelowo still doesn’t always fit the more prominent roles that he’s been landed with (Jack Reacher, or even Daniels' last, The Paperboy).
More fleetingly interesting are the colourful glimpses at various Presidents, with heavy makeup and prosthetics leaving you to play guess-the-actor for the parts – Robin Williams, James Marsden, and Alan Rickman being the more obvious three, whilst Liev Schreiber and John Cusack look utterly unrecognisable. Daniels struggles to give any of them noteworthy depth or true significance, and some suffer under the process more than others – with those coming across as little more than stereotyped caricatures (what we expect these Presidents to be like), rather than real human beings.
Ultimately, The Butler proves to be both an entertaining and an engaging ride, which paints a very different slant on the latter end of slavery, but sometimes plays it that little bit too safe to earn itself a spot amidst the bigger, more heavyweight players in this category. That’s not to say it should be dismissed, though, just because the film doesn’t feel like it’s boxing for Oscars. There’s plenty to enjoy here, not least the myriad interesting performances and the path-through-history narrative.
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