IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 132 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 2009, an elderly Cecil Gaines recounts his life story, while waiting in the White House. He is raised on a cotton plantation in the 1920s in Macon, Georgia, by his sharecropping parents. One day the farm’s owner rapes Cecil’s mother, Hattie Pearl, and his father is shot dead when confrontating the rapist. Cecil is taken in by the estate’s caretaker, who reassigns Cecil to being a house servant. In his teens, he leaves behind the Westfall plantation and his mother, and when he breaks into a hotel, is unexpectedly hired by the owners.who has been mute since the incident. One night, Cecil breaks into a pastry shop inside a hotel and is, unexpectedly, hired by the owners. There, he acquires skills from the master servant, and in time, is hired by the White House….
The Butler, which sometimes resembles a black Forrest Gump meets The Remains Of The Day, is based on the life of Eugene Allen, who served as White House butler for over 30 years and eight presidents from the Truman to the Reagan administrations. Now let’s the bad out of the way first – the film invents and even distorts a great deal – for instance he never had a mother who was raped or a son who joined the Black Panthers. Obviously it was considered that the truth wasn’t dramatic enough and therefore things needed to be made up. However, there is no doubt that all the things that happened to Cecil Gaines and his family are things that happened to many others, and the film is generally so well done it ceased to matter after a while. Yes, certain incidents like Gaines wondering into a riot seem forced, and I’m sure Spike Lee, the original director, would have made a more true-to-life film, but never mind, The Butler is an often powerful epic that races through decades at top speed. At times it feels a bit rushed, especially near the beginning [in the first two minutes we witness an off-screen rape and on-screen shooting], and the huge amount of guest stars, some of whom are odd choices [Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan?!] showing up for a few minutes to play a President or a President’s wife, sometimes gives the proceedings the feel of an all-star revue.
However, its heart is in the right place and it should rightfully make you feel angry in places. It really rams home how blacks have been treated for over 200 years in the US, as well as make you consider the best ways to get results in any country where a part of the population is treated badly. The heart of the film is the conflict between Gaines and his younger son, who is prepared to protest to get black rights, while Gaines’s aspirations are more personal, low-key and to him realistic: to provide for his family and to get him and his staff equal pay and promotion chances. Forrest Whitaker gives what could be his best ever performance, often registering so much by doing so little. A thoroughly absorbing, thought-provoking and, in the end, rather moving [I cried three times, and if you’re like me and a bit of a sentimental old baby, you’ll remember the line: “I want to protest with you” for ages], film. I guess it’s a bit cheesy and on-the-nose at times, but I think it earns it.