Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) has worked at The White House for 34 years. He started his tenure under President Eisenhower (Robin Williams) and would see seven presidents come and go throughout his career as a butler. He was present during some of the most tumulus periods in the 20th Century including the American Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. This is his story of life with the most powerful men on the planet, but also his life at home with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and their two children Charlie (Elijah Kelley) and Louis (David Oyelowo) as they see their country change through the decades.
At the beginning of Lee Daniel’s The Butler it says “Inspired by a true story”. This was an article that appeared in The Washington Post; the account of Eugene Allen who was the real life inspiration. However, it seems that the people making the film decided to take some liberties when making The Butler as there are many parts of the film that simply did not happen to Eugene.
These additions make it feel as though Gaines lived through every big political moment in US politics and it affected him directly either through work or at home. The film could almost be saying he is the catalyst for all of these issues turning into worldwide problems.
The problems that surround each president are played out with dry enthusiasm for such big issues. They made us feel like we were watching a TV movie rather than an emotional heartfelt theatrical film. The only moments that truly reflect the issues at hand are the times focussing on the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a brutal and bloody inner city war about equality and is played with menace and aggressions making it feel as if we were right in the middle of it. Sadly the rest of the film lacks that sort of conviction.
The Vietnam War era is quickly run through even though there are key storyline moments that should have been expanded further. Instead the focus falls more and more on the home life of Cecil and Gloria, with adultery and alcoholism instantly put upon Gloria for her to wrestle with those demons, yet the script gives no fulfilling conclusions to either.
Whitaker is reserved and touchingly quiet throughout. It’s one of the softer roles he has ever done. Whilst it doesn’t require hooting and hollering, it would have been nice to see more passion escape when his home life seems to downturn. But we felt that’s more to do with the script rather than Forest’s performance. Oprah gives a great performance, but ultimately her role is confined to living her life and the issues within the four walls of their house.
Lee Daniel’s The Butler should be telling a thoroughly interesting account of a man who has had a very important and memorable job. Instead it feels dull and uninspiring even with such huge moments in the modern era to explore. The big moments are underplayed or quickly moved over with time changing far too quickly. It’s a shame to see this opportunity go begging.