The Butler – first look review

More historical pageant than drama, Lee Daniels’ The Butler takes the Forrest Gump approach to another corner of American history, filtering the dramatic civil rights movement of the 1960s through the life of an ordinary butler who served seven different presidents from Dwight D Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan. Based very loosely on a real man, The Butler sets its mild-mannered protagonist Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) in sharp contrast to his son Louis (David Oyelowo), a Freedom Rider and eventually Black Panther who conveniently finds himself at the centre of a series of civil rights landmark moments.

There are fascinating wrinkles to be found in that relationship, and director Daniels does stumble upon a few. But for the most part his usual heavy hand draws only the thickest lines between two generations of African-Americans, and Danny Strong’s script muddles the family story with too many “significant” encounters between Cecil and his presidential employers. It’s impossible not to be distracted when Robin Williams appears in a bald cap as Eisenhower, or Liev Schreiber blusters his way across the screen as a noisy Lyndon Johnson. When John Cusack shows up as a flop-sweating Richard Nixon, the film is playing dress-up and passing it as history. By the time Jane Fonda eerily transforms herself into Nancy Reagan, the film itself seems in on the joke.

If it’s possible to look past Daniels’ directorial flourishes, The Butler does occasionally muster its own power, contrasting Cecil’s work at a White House state dinner with Louis’s beating by the police after a protest, or the riot that broke out in Washington DC after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Aware that he has a good job that provides for his family, Cecil is unwilling to rock the boat politically, which leads to clashes with his son but an otherwise passive performance for Whitaker. Oprah Winfrey, channelling Elizabeth Taylor’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? performance as Cecil’s hard-drinking wife, has more to play with but literally nowhere to go, her scenes almost exclusively limited to their airless, modest home.

The quick glimpses into the lives of middle-class African-Americans in this time of massive social upheaval – the house parties, the front porch conversations – are evocative and frequently charming, but The Butler is trying to cover way too much ground to get into that, or anything, to any real satisfaction.

With an ensemble and a story this large casting often substitutes for characterisation – Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz are Cecil’s amiable White House co-workers, Vanessa Redgrave is the kindly owner of the farm where Cecil grew up, Mariah Carey is his loving mother, and so on. James Marsden comports himself well as JFK, and Alan Rickman makes for a spot-on Ronald Reagan, but the string of presidential cameos also gives the film its numbing structure. Over and over again the leaders ask Cecil a pointed civil rights-related question and seem inspired by his humble, wholly uninteresting presence. Cecil Gaines is a witness to important historical events but a participant in none of them, and at times even Daniels seems to wish he were making a film entirely about the Freedom Riders or Black Panthers (Oyelowo’s fiery performance makes that draw even stronger).

A great film about the American civil rights movement is way overdue. The Butler, overwhelmed by flash and good intentions, doesn’t even come close.

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Taken from The Guardian