Completing a hat-trick of movies over the last three days, I saw a film that’s probably as far removed from the other two as I could get (at least until the Oscar nominations come out). I don’t follow the Oscars that closely, but I know Oscar bait when I see it and goodness knows this has award season in mind.
“The Butler” is a sort-of-biopic, loosely based on the life of real-life White House butler Eugene Allen. I guess his life – interesting as it was – needed a bit of Hollywooding, so instead it tells the life story of Cecil Gaines. Cecil (Forest Whitaker) served as a butler in the White House from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan, and gets a behind the scenes look at the civil rights movement from the top down. One of this sons gets involved in the movement from the bottom up, and repeatedly clashes with his father.
I’m not really sure what to make of it. My history isn’t great, but I’m trying to pick it up where I can. I’m just not sure that this sort of ‘greatest hits’ method of historical storytelling really serves that purpose though, there’s just too much to pack in. The White House side almost turns into a spot-the-star sketch show as presidents come and go (Robin Williams, James Marsden, John Cusack, Liev Schreiber, Alan Rickman). The supporting cast have similar notoriety, with Cecil’s wife Gloria distractingly played by billionaireness Oprah Winfrey. She’s still a bit of a mythical figure in the UK, so while she did a great job, it was hard not to watch her and hang on every Oprah word.
Who else… Mariah Carey’s in there and never says a word. Alex Pettyfer is all rapey (and still…), Jane Fonda works the power hairdo as Nancy Reagan. Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding Jr, Vanessa Redgrave … it’s certainly a star-spangled cast.
Cecil’s personal life has to pull out all the stops to compete with all that star power, so ends up with a totally fictional and rather contrived life. Dad killed, mum raped, one son killed in the ‘Nam, another joining civil rights protests. It certainly isn’t a straighforward life. Maybe that’s one of the problems, it just does too much in the time.
NOT that I’d want the film to be longer, but it turned into a blizzard of history’s big moments, a scene or two with each president to tell you explicitly if they like blacks or not. The final acts definitely got bogged down in flag waving and soundbites, it just laid it on a bit thick for my money. Still, I do like that these sort of films get made, it’s an important chapter in American history to cover, just don’t use it for exam revision.
Oh and I just found out the screenplay was written by Danny Strong, aka nerdy Jonathan from Buffy! Who knew?? I wonder if he meant for everyone to mumble as much as they did. Honestly couldn’t understand some of it.