Wednesday, 30 October 2013
FILM REVIEW: THE BUTLER
Inspired by the career of a White House attendant, Lee Daniels' The Butler (its full American title following a copyright kerfuffle) charts the history of the American Civil Rights movement, from the 1950's through to the election of President Obama in 2008, in tandem with the life and career of the titular manservant, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker).
From Cecil's childhood on a Southern cotton plantation in the 1920s -- where a sympathetic but no less bigoted Mistress (Vanessa Redgrave) instructs the young Cecil on being the perfect houseboy -- through his 40-odd years as a butler at the White House -- serving eight presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton -- The Butler, penned by Danny Strong, examines the political and the personal struggles for racial equality in the United States.
Privy to the movement's, and America's big moments -- segregation in Little Rock, Arkansas; the Freedom Rides; the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King -- from within the halls of the American seat of power, Cecil is at somewhat of a remove from the bigger picture unfolding across America; his viewpoint filtered through whomever is the current President, who is either mindful of Cecil (James Marsden's John F. Kennedy), or, if not oblivious to his race, than certainly his emotions (Liev Schreiber's Lyndon B. Johnson).
The cameos of noted actors portraying the Presidents -- which also includes Robin Williams (Eisenhower), John Cusack (Nixon) and Alan Rickman (Reagan) -- isn't as distracting as you'd fear. Although little more than extended walk-ons, they aren't amusing for their appearance so much as the often present hypocrisy; their respect for Cecil but their failure to grasp the importance of the Civil Rights movement: Reagan champions Cecil's long-waged campaign of equal pay for the White House's coloured staff even as he steadfastly refuses to oppose the South African government's policy of apartheid.
What Cecil may think about his employers he does not say, perfecting the art of the butler who should make the room appear as though he is not in it. And Whitaker, an actor with distinct facial features and a whispery voice, is perfect at portraying a man so accustomed to not being observed or questioned.
But when Cecil is at home, he's forced to engage. Not just by his colourful wife, Gloria (a fine Oprah Winfrey), but by his impassioned eldest son, Louis (David Oleyowo). Louis, unlike his father, knows what's happening in the real world; he senses the winds of change. When he leaves for university (in the South, no less), he pursues his political leanings (and fellow activist, Carol (Yaya Alafia)), much to the chagrin of his parents.
Louis's arc -- the Freedom rides, a disciple of Dr. King, a flirtation with the Black Panthers -- charts the Civil Rights movement from within, exposing the overt racism at America's heart, and the bravery of those involved in confronting and overcoming it.
It's in these moments -- in the Gaines household with Cecil and Gloria; in the instances where father and son clash over ideology -- the quiet and personal ones, where Daniels' film excels. While the larger construct of of the film, the broad strokes of history, may not always be convincing, the emotional beat of The Butler comes through.