Servant of eight masters – The Butler review

The Butler

By Jess Lomas
October 29, 2013

Director Lee Daniels has a slender work portfolio to date, but has wowed audiences with Precious and divided critics with The Paperboy. In his latest, The Butler, Daniels appears to replace meaningful historical reflection for star power, creating a paint-by-numbers depiction of the civil rights movement in America.

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) has lived an incredible life. From humble beginnings on a cotton farm in the Deep South, the rape of his mother and death of his father saw him ushered into a life of servitude. Having gained experience working in a hotel, Cecil’s friendly manner sees him recommended for a position at the White House, where he begins his employment in 1957 under the Eisenhower (Robin Williams) administration.

The Butler

We follow his professional life – based on that of Eugene Allen – through eight Presidents over thirty years, as well as his personal life, as he battles with his faltering marriage to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and his estrangement from his political extremist son Louis (David Oyelowo). There is a tender story at the heart of this family and one worthy of your time, but it consistently gets skimmed over as Daniels attempts to cover so much ground.

We don’t see all the Presidents Cecil served, though an amusing selection emerge, including a wildly miscast Richard Nixon (John Cusack), a safe choice in Kennedy (James Marsden), and a rather convincing Reagan (Alan Rickman). Whether Daniels was making a point that it didn’t matter who played these leaders – as this film is really focused on the black struggle and movement – is unclear, but the majority of their turns are often distracting and occasionally laughable.

The Butler

Comparisons to Forrest Gump are unavoidable, although here, rather than take their lead in inserting the protagonist into historical footage, Daniels employs the use of a revolving door of celebrities. There’s Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, and Cuba Gooding Jr. as fellow black butlers at the White House, as well as Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Terrence Howard, Liev Schreiber, and Jane Fonda all making appearances.

One thing The Butler makes you thankful for is the return of Oprah Winfrey, an actress who owns all her scenes, lights up the screen, and keeps us interested even when the movie seems to get messy and lost in itself. An ambitious undertaking, Lee Daniels’ The Butler refuses to be subtle and doesn’t apologise for being obvious Oscar bait. It is ultimately saved by a handful of performances, a stellar soundtrack, and key historical scenes that catch your breath and heart.

3/5

The Butler arrives in Australian cinemas October 31, 2013.

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