Film review of ‘The Butler’: Syrup and sanctimony drag down this servant’s story

There is an all-pervading self-righteousness oozing from every pore of this film, and it is present from the opening frame to the closing one, several days later – or so it felt. This sentiment even found its way into the original title, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, where the director felt the need to succumb to this odious trend and assert both his sense of ownership and ego onto the film. This act of self-congratulation feels all the more bewildering having seen this bombastic, heartstring-tugging take on the American civil rights movement as seen through the eyes of a White House butler and his family. Daniels goes to work with hammer blows of pathos and syrupy drama, taking history, characterisation and content and swallowing them whole – gargled, mangled and spat back out, they are served diluted, disjointed and stripped of most of their relevance and meaning.

Forrest Gump … err, I mean, Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, personal butler to a long line of American presidents from the mid-1950s to the late 1980s. When asked at his job interview whether he is political, Cecil responds in the negative. The telling response from his interviewer is easily the film’s most nuanced moment. “Good”, he says. “We have no tolerance for politics at the White House”. For the next 30 years or so, Cecil diligently drives Miss Daisy in the form of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan without a hint of disobedience or disdain. He handles his work with an outwardly disaffected precision, while quietly observing the political decisions and debates regarding the civil rights movement in the Oval Office. All the while, many of these events are mirrored in the real life experiences of Cecil’s son Louis (Oyelowo), who becomes politically active at university and goes on to dedicate himself to the movement for change by joining the Black Panthers, and then, after rejecting violence as a viable means of change, by entering mainstream politics.

The film skims mercilessly over a head-spinning series of important historic events, from Little Rock to Birmingham, from the assassinations of Kennedy and King to the Vietnam War and Watergate, and from the Black Panther movement to apartheid in South Africa. The script, loosely based on a 2008 Washington Post article and written by Danny Strong (Recount, Game Change), is thus less a cohesive or engaging story and more a series of political and historic postcards, displayed in the Hollywood gift shop of ham-fisted and heavy-handed products.

For a film boasting a wealth of highly experienced actors, The Butler is certainly not bursting with outstanding performances, mostly because there isn’t any time or space for anyone to perform. Williams, Schreiber, Cusack, Rickman and Marsden are paraded past at breakneck speed as the various American presidents, and it is worth noting that little has been done to make them fit their parts, while plot development and causality are simply hinted at and summarily disposed of. The façade is clearly more important than the authenticity here.

Instead of selecting key moments in the history of the civil rights movement and treating them with a degree of subtlety, artistry, depth or detail (Mississippi Burning, for example), Daniels and Strong indulge every emotional arm-twister and filmic cliché and seem happy to include any major occurrence in 80 years of American history, either through Gaines and his family or through inexplicable jump cuts of archive footage, including some baffling and random shots of, for example, Princess Diana and a McDonalds. Life really isn’t like a box of chocolates, but if it were, this film would be like diabetes.

The Butler (11)

Dir: Lee Daniels; US drama, 2013, 132 mins; Forest Whittaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr, Terrence Howard, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Robin Williams, Jane Fonda, James Marsden
Premiered September 19
Playing nationwide