The Butler
3/5   aka: Lee Daniels’ The Butler
dir Lee Daniels
scr Danny Strong, Wil Haygood
prd Lee Daniels, Cassian Elwes, Buddy Patrick, Laura Ziskin
with Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr, Lenny Kravitz, Elijah Kelley, Yaya Alafia, Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, Mariah Carey, Clarence Williams III
release US 16.Aug.13, UK 15.Nov.13
13/US Weinstein 2h12
The Butler
Watching history: Winfrey and Whitaker

oyelowo howard gooding
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
The Butler Eerily reminiscent of Forrest Gump, this is the true story of a quiet man who observed the tumultuous changes in America over a half-century while standing at the side of seven US presidents. It's far too serious and worthy to properly engage us, although it offers a nice summary of the Civil Rights movement.

Growing up in 1920s Georgia, Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) was rescued from the vile cotton plantation foreman (Pettyfer) by a kindly matriarch (Redgrave) who trained him as a house servant. This helps him find work after he moves north to Washington DC with his wife Gloria (Winfrey) and sons, eventually being employed as a White House butler in 1957. His main instruction is: "You hear nothing, you see nothing, you only serve." Over the coming decades, he witnesses key moments in history and has a quiet impact on a succession of presidents.

Drawlingly narrated in flashback, the film strolls through four decades of American history, specifically tracing the struggle against racism. Whitaker is fine in the somewhat simplistic role as a perceptive but uneducated man who passively observes major events in both America's political scene and his own family. Winfrey gets the scene-chewing role as his feisty wife, while Oyelowo registers sharply as their son Louis, who's involved in every event in the Civil Rights struggle.

Everyone else either fades into the crowded background or adds to a parade of rather dull cameos, including Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Nixon (John Cusack), JFK (James Marsden), LBJ (Liev Schreiber), MLK (Nelsan Ellis) and the Reagans (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda). It's intriguing to see the White House adjust to each new administration, but there's nothing here that we haven't seen before. And Cecil's family life feels like a fictional melodrama. More compelling are the political shifts Cecil witnesses over the decades.

This is an oddly slushy movie for Daniels (see The Paperboy), especially since it continually avoids touchy subjects. On the other hand, the harsh scenes in which Louis takes on the racist establishment add dark resonance. Of course there's strong irony in how blacks were once only allowed in the White House as servants. Which provides a terrific payoff when Cecil and Gloria get to attend a state dinner as guests. And when Cecil sees Obama take the top job.

cert 12 themes, violence, language 31.Oct.13

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