Poignant film that honours US history

A TALE OF TWO LIVES: Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a butler in the White House and a disconnected husband, while Oprah Winfrey plays his lonely wife Gloria in The Butler.


    Oct 24, 2013

    Poignant film that honours US history


    Drama/132 minutes

    Rating: 4/5

    IN A cotton plantation in 1920s United States, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) seems to be destined to follow in his sharecropping parents' footsteps.

    But when his father is killed, the tragedy emboldens him to break free from a life of slavery. Through sheer luck and determination, he gains employment in a hotel, which ultimately sees him employed as a butler in the White House.

    An overwhelming number of films have tackled the history of racism in the US - think recent films like The Help (2011) and Django Unchained (2012) - but that doesn't detract from director Lee Daniels' ready handling of such a touchy topic in The Butler.

    The film is loosely inspired by the life of veteran White House butler Eugene Allen, who served eight US presidents from 1952 to 1986 at the height of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, which lasted from 1955 to 1968.

    The story is also largely supported by an impressive ensemble cast that doesn't weigh the film down. The performances of big-name stars like Robin Williams (in a fleeting role as president Dwight Eisenhower) and Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan) help the film progress smoothly without it feeling like a trite celebrity showdown.

    Interestingly, Cecil is not painted out to be a progressive human-rights advocate. Instead, the film's real hero is his elder son Louis (David Oyelowo), who becomes a core member of the civil-rights movement.

    The film's unflinching portrayal of racism is neither glossed over nor uninformed. Daniels strengthens the morality of the film by interlacing archival footage of racially charged violence with close-ups of lynched bodies hanging on street posts.

    But, as the violence escalates, Cecil's world inside the White House remains eerily static and, well, white.

    The issue of him living two lives, one of a professional butler and the other of a disconnected father and husband, raises tension in his household - lonely wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) turns to alcohol and Louis is disowned.

    Cecil's detachment is a reminder that he is a product of his environment, one in which he walks a fine line between respect from those he serves and an implicit understanding that the colour of his skin would always stand in the way of truly equal rights.

    At the same time, Cecil isn't just a victim of history. His role as a butler, which defies stereotypes of the black man as an unthinking slave, was crucial to the civil-rights movement.

    Sure, Daniels may have taken liberties in such a loose adaptation of a true story, but the film still succeeds in doing what it had set out to achieve - to honour men like Eugene Allen and a tragic, but defining, period of US history.