Starring : Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr, Lenny Kravitz
Director : Lee Daniels
Release Date : 26 Sep 2013
Despite its preachy undertones, excellent performances and powerful scenes help to tell an important story.
CECIL Gaines, the titular butler of the movie, is taught early in his career that as an African-American working as domestic help, he needs to cultivate “two faces”: his real self, and the one he shows the white people he serves. This dualism, the idea of two identities, is the driving force of the story’s message, so much so that it often feels like the movie itself has two faces: one, a powerful, often gut-wrenching examination of America’s civil rights movement, and the other, a didactic and rather over-wrought movie that seems to have bitten off more than it can chew.
Loosely based on the real-life story of an African-American butler who served in the White House, The Butler tells the story of Cecil (Forest Whitaker), who works for eight different American presidents (from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan) over the course of three decades, a period that coincides with the beginning and evolution of the nation’s civil rights movement. As such, we see the key events of this period unfold alongside Cecil’s journey.
Having spent his childhood in a cotton farm in Georgia, where he witnesses his father being shot, Cecil has indeed perfected his two faces, and it is what makes him so good at his job. Whatever unfolds around him in the White House – and as the movie shows, he is privy to some monumental moments – he continues to do just what he is trained to do: serve.
This becomes the main point of contention between Cecil and his eldest son, Louis (David Oyelewo), as the latter is ashamed of his father’s servitude, believing instead that it is every African-American’s duty to stand up for their rights.
In fact, it is in these smaller, more personal moments that the movie excels, as it paints a picture of America’s turbulent history through realistic people and stories.
Where the film falters, though, is in portraying the complexities of the civil rights movement and the political maneouvring surrounding it. Admittedly, covering 30 years of history is a tall order for any movie, but in The Butler, it sometimes feels like key moments are being checked off a list: here are the Freedom Rides, here’s Martin Luther King Jr, here are the Black Panthers, and so on.
That we come away from the movie more enamoured with its positives is thanks to the excellent performances put in by the cast, led of course by Academy Award-winner Whitaker, whose dignified, layered take on the lead character is absolutely engaging. Add to this the electric chemistry he shares with Oyelewo, and the fine work by actors like Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz (both as Cecil’s fellow butlers), and already you have a film worth catching.
The real revelation, however, is Oprah Winfrey’s fantastic performance as Cecil’s wife Gloria. As a woman of colour struggling to balance her role as mother and wife while also dealing with her own demons, Winfrey is not only captivating, but also does a great job of putting a face to the everyday struggles of the African-American community of that time.
And for all the movie’s flaws, Daniels is a genius at creating powerful cinematic moments, and in The Butler, there is no shortage of these. Take, for instance, the way he juxtaposes Cecil serving a formal dinner in the White House while his son is manhandled during a sit-in at a diner, or a short but potent speech King makes to Louis about the pride he should feel in his father, or even Cecil’s reaction when he hears of Kennedy’s assasination.
Long after you’ve forgotten the preachier moments, these moments burrow in your mind, telling you just how important a film like The Butler is.