Three turbulent decades of American history, from the 1950s to the 1980s, are seen from the perspective of long-serving White House butler Cecil Gaines (Whitaker).
While this is literally two-plus hours of what-the-butler- saw, Lee Daniels’ follow-up to the divisive The Paperboy is far from antiquated end-of-the-pier smut. Instead, it’s an earnest attempt to humanise the tumultuous events of the post-War era by viewing them through the eyes of White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who served eight administrations, from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan, and bore witness to some of the most momentous political machinations of the 20th century. It’s hardly an original narrative device but it has dramatic potential, providing both fly-on-the-wall access to the corridors of power and an intimate view of the impact policy-making has on ordinary people’s lives.
Not that Gaines, a fictional character loosely based on real-life White House butler Eugene Allen, is an ordinary person. In fact, in his role as surrogate for the entire black American experience, he’s forced to take every nuance of socio-political upheaval on the chin. And it’s here the film gets bogged down. There’s no doubting Daniels’ and screenwriter Danny Strong’s sincerity, but they do lay it on with a trowel. Take, for instance, a scene where the young Gaines witnesses a redneck farmer rape his mother and then shoot his father in the head. It’s all a bit much. And although the film’s message is entirely principled, it smacks of self-importance and comes with a veneer of sentimentality that is unlikely to sit well with audiences outside the US.
On the plus side, Forest Whitaker delivers another superb performance as Gaines, investing him with a quiet dignity that counterbalances the film’s tendency to soapy melodrama. The supporting cast, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. Oprah Winfrey is terrific as Gaines’ wife Gloria, as is Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson. John Cusack makes a game stab at Nixon, but Robin Williams as Eisenhower and Alan Rickman as Reagan fall squarely into the WTF? category. On balance, then, more worthy than an Edwardian strumpet cavorting in a hip bath. But not quite as much fun.
Manipulative and preachy, The Butler is redeemed by a sensitive performance from Forest Whitaker and the undeniable power of the events it depicts.