The Butler (12A)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner13/11/2013

Three out of Five stars
Running time: 132 mins

Engaging and enjoyable run-through of Civil Rights history, enlivened by a superb central performance from Forest Whitaker, a strong supporting cast and a parade of entertaining (if occasionally distracting) cameos as the various presidents.

What's it all about?
Directed by Lee Daniels, The Butler is a fictionalised drama inspired by the true story of Eugene Allen, who served as a butler at the White House for 34 years. Forest Whitaker stars as Cecil Gaines, whose father is murdered in cold blood by a cotton plantation foreman (Alex Pettyfer) in the 1920s; he's subsequently taken in by kindly matriarch Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave), who trains him as a house servant, which eventually leads to him landing a job at the White House as a butler in 1957.

Cecil subsequently serves under eight different US presidents, including Eisenhower (Robin Williams), JFK (James Marsden), Lyndon B. Johnson (Live Schreiber), Nixon (John Cusack) and the Reagans (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda) and observes key events in the history of the Civil Rights movement. Meanwhile, his educated son Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes heavily involved in the activist movement, causing an estrangement with his father and leaving his mother (Oprah Winfrey) torn between the two men.

The Good
Whitaker delivers a likeable, dignified performance as Cecil and there's terrific support from Oprah Winfrey as his wife, who has a subtly effective subplot of her own involving alcoholism and a close relationship with a next-door neighbour (Cuba Gooding Jnr, cleverly cast against type). David Oyelowo is equally good as Louis and there's good work from Yaya Alafia as his Angela-Davis-esque activist girlfriend Carol – the scene where Louis and Carol come over for dinner and argue about Sidney Poitier is a particular highlight.

The script provides an engaging and informative trawl through the key points of Civil Rights history, which should see it earn a place on school curricula everywhere. It also delivers a number of powerfully emotional sequences, such as Louis and Carol participating in the historic Woolworth lunch counter protest or their terrifying experiences when angry Southerners attacked the activists' Freedom Bus.

The Bad
The film's biggest problem is that the butler's role is by nature a passive, observing one, so it's difficult to generate any real drama around Whitaker's section of the story, especially in the White House scenes. It's also fair to say that the family conflict feels under-developed – you can't help wishing for a confrontation scene between Whitaker and Winfrey, for example.

On top of that, the various cameos are undeniably entertaining (highlights are Cusack's Nixon and Schreiber's LBJ), but they're also too much of a distraction and occasionally feel like stunt-casting (Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan in particular).

Worth seeing?
The Butler is a well made and superbly acted drama that takes an informative and frequently moving look at Civil Rights history, though the central story doesn't quite connect on the same emotional level.

Film Trailer

The Butler (12A)
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Content updated: 23/09/2018 19:07

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