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Running Time
132 minutes

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The Butler
White House Downton

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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).

The Butler

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.

Reviewed by Simon Braund

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Your Reviews

Average user rating for The Butler
Empire Star Rating

Whitaker and WInfrey the Winners.

They make this film. Great performances. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by TroyPutland at 19:08, 10 December 2014 | Report This Post

RE: quite liked it.

As the beating heart of this story about "a crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice", Whitaker is back on form. ... More

Posted by chang at 09:29, 31 December 2013 | Report This Post

quite liked it.

Enjoyed the ensemble. Particularly Coleman Domingo (who was over here recently for his show and was brilliant! so it was great to see him on the big screen). And True Blood's Laffeyette (sp?) as Dr. King. Bit of let down to here that it's all made up (although, as I was watching it i did think 'wow, what a coincidence that all this occurred.' ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by tysmuse at 23:56, 18 December 2013 | Report This Post

RE: The Butler

Out of this current series of pre-Oscar contenders which start with “based/inspired by a true story, Lee Daniels’ latest is the one that truly screams “for your consideration” with a checklist that includes American history, racism, an all-star cast and even a trailer that plays out the sentimentality. After an array of bleak dramas such as Precious and The Paperboy, Daniels goes soft to please the mass audience. During the course of three decades as a butler for the White House, Cecil Gai... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by R W at 00:15, 06 December 2013 | Report This Post

No pain, no Gaines...

There are some beautifully acted, written and directed scenes which even the most hard-hearted cinemagoer will struggle to be unmoved by, but they're part of a loose, fairly rambling narrative in which the titular servant is more of an observer than a protagonist. Quite often it seems as though Whitaker is only acting as a conduit, through which we see a greatest-hits reel of the civil rights movement over the last sixty years. By no means a bad thing, but by no means an original one, either.... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by TheMightyBlackout at 22:01, 28 November 2013 | Report This Post

RE: Was interested in this until I heard how much was made up...

The Butler, which sometimes resembles a black Forrest Gump meets The Remains Of The Day, is based on the life of Eugene Allen, who served as White House butler for over 30 years and eight presidents from the Truman to the Reagan administrations. Now let’s the bad out of the way first – the film invents and even distorts a great deal – for instance he never had a mother who was raped or a son who joined the Black Panthers. Obviously it was considered that the truth wasn’t dramatic enough and the... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Dr Lenera at 11:32, 21 November 2013 | Report This Post

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