Review: The Butler

LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLERI was really impressed with this film; a wonderful character study, a beautiful piece of history and a great father/son story. “The Butler” is a film well worth seeing. The film focuses on Cecil Gaines, an African-American whose father is killed by a spoilt son of a landowner. To punish the son, Cecil Gaines is taken in by the rich family’s matriarch and taught to be a butler. Eventually, Cecil leaves his employer to make a living on his own, but jobs are hard to come by. He is taken in by a hotel butler, who teaches him the craft of being discrete and polite. His skill is noticed by the head butler of the White House and is hired to be one of the butlers to the President of the United States of America.

What then follows is an overview of the African-American fight for equality viewed through the eyes of presidents, the butlers of the white house, and Cecil’s son, Louis. While Presidents ruminate over the events occurring in Southern USA, Louis prefers a more involved stance, leaving his father and mother to become involved in the Civil Rights movement, and eventually the Black Panthers. Cecil Gaines is dismayed and disgusted by his son’s actions and disowns him; he sees his son’s involvement as counterproductive and detrimental to his job at the White House. Cecil uses his discretion and training to speak with the President (only when spoken to) and makes pointed remarks to influence the President’s choice of action. The film does not seem to distinguish between which is more effective, leaving it to the audience to decide for themselves.

Because the film covers a great breadth of history – 1920’s to 2008, the film has a tendency to be episodic, even the wavering between Cecil’s home life and professional life feels disjointed; I don’t feel any sense of connection between the two. This may be because the main character did much to keep the two “lives” separate. Cecil preferred a quiet and understated approach to involvement in his family life and in the world around him. He puts a lot of care into his profession to the detriment of his family; his wife becomes addicted to alcohol, and his son challenges his father’s seeming submission to “The Man”.

The film sustained interest however because of the excellent performances of the cast. Forest Whitaker plays the devoted Cecil Gaines with great understatement and holds your attention constantly through the film. Oprah Winfrey makes a welcome return as his wife, Gail, adding gravitas to this flawed woman. David Oyelwo is excellent as the fiery and energetic rebellious son. There is also great support from Cuba Gooding Junior and Lenny Kravitz. Even the special appearances by Robin Williams, Alan Rickman, and Jane Fonda are astounding. I was particularly impressed by John Cusack as Richard Nixon.

The sets and costumes effectively portray the changing history of the US. But the direction and writing is sometimes a bit stilted and could be improved. The soundtrack was sometimes, inspiring and sometimes clichéd.

The film is a good father/son film. Showing how two different men clash without losing too much dignity. Cecil’s patient and understated approach is contrasted against the hands-on full involvement of Louis in the Civil Rights movement. While the son is prepared to take risks, the father plays a quiet hand, waiting for his President to invite comment before taking action. It is the old pen versus sword argument, the film strongly biased towards the pen. I strongly recommend this movie for you to share with your (older) son, and other members of your family.

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