'We have no tolerance for politics at the White House," Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is warned his first day on the job as butler to the president. That kind of perverse logic forms part of the atmosphere in The Butler, Lee Daniels’s effective, yet frequently contrived and cloyingly earnest historical epic, inspired by the story of real-life White House butler Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents over 34 years, beginning in 1952. Here Allen’s story is presented as a mixed triumph: though he escaped life on a southern plantation to become his own man in Washington D.C., with a home and family, in this new life too he served only white people, and was therefore subject to the paradox of life for a black man just before and just after change finally came to a racially divided United States.
a history lesson of Forrest Gump-like proportions
Many of screenwriter Danny Strong’s amendments to Allen’s story suggest a dubious narrative expedience. Instead of growing up on a post-slavery plantation in Virginia, Gaines is in Georgia when the film opens, and we watch the plantation owner (Alex Pettyfer) rape his mother (Mariah Carey) and murder his father in the film’s first minutes. These events appear to be invented, designed to stoke a baseline of outrage. ('Are you fucking serious?" the girls behind me gasped.) Strong and Daniels appear determined to use Gaines as a frame for a history lesson of Forrest Gump-like proportions, as though Allen’s story were not extraordinary enough on its own, capable of producing emotional nuance and historical resonance without the aid of such broad contextual strokes.
That said, at over two hours, The Butler moves quickly. Even playing a professional invisible man, Whitaker holds the screen, his downturned mouth a mask of grim obeisance, as though gravity were only one of the forces at work on his face, which appears moulded and pulled in competing directions. Standing against the walls of the country’s democratic heart, Cecil is witness to key events in 20th century American history, including the Kennedy assassination and Johnson’s signing of the historic civil rights bill. Playing his wife, Gloria, Oprah Winfrey has a surprisingly easy sensuality, almost disappearing into the role of a warm-spirited but deeply bored, eventually alcoholic housewife.
Gaines’s story takes off when he leaves the plantation, where the matron (Vanessa Redgrave) trained him as a 'house boy," for work in the north. What he learned in Georgia—to inhabit a room without anyone noticing and be as unthreatening to white people as possible—proves useful at the tony Excelsior hotel and then at the White House, where Cecil starts working under Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams). There follows a series of slightly goofy cameos by recognisable actors in presidential drag: John Cusack as Richard Nixon, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Liev Schrieber as Lyndon Johnson, John Cusack as Nixon again, and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. (As a reward for sitting through all that hamming, Jane Fonda turns up as Nancy Reagan.)
Daniels and Strong concentrate on the 1960s, when the United States shuddered with wave after wave of social and political revolution. They also invent a second son (Allen had only one), Louis (David Oyelowo), who participates in the student riots in Mississippi, is present when Martin Luther King Jr. is murdered, and joins the Black Power movement. Louis is a too-neat counterpoint to his father, who was conditioned to keep his head down, though Cecil does begin lobbying for equal pay for black White House staff. This request is denied for decades, during which his second son is killed in Vietnam, and Gloria has an affair with the neighbour (Terrence Howard). 'God, this guy can’t get a break," the girls behind me said. Cecil becomes a kind of American Job, the ungainly, suffering link between generations whose experience of racial oppression will differ vastly.
Some may say that oppression now only wears a contorted mask, much like Cecil’s. True to its epic ambitions, The Butler opts for uplift. Its final scenes offer another gloss in a film that seems destined for the classroom, where it will earn untold teachers an afternoon off and confuse even more children about the facts of Eugene Allen’s life. For many, though, its relatively honest blend of history and melodrama will work all the same. 'That was a great movie," the girls behind me sighed as the credits rolled. 'I cried like three times."