Movie review – The Butler: An important slice of American history

2013-11-17 14:00

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Already creating Oscar buzz, The Butler tells the tale of duty and service, writes Lesley Mofokeng

The star power of The Butler could easily have been its downfall but it survives thanks to clever casting.

We see megastars reduced to cameos and extras in this inspiring story of duty and service about Cecil Gaines, a White House butler who serves eight US presidents over three decades – starting with Dwight D Eisenhower, up to Ronald Reagan.

The film is loosely based on the real life of Eugene Allen, who served in the White House and died in 2010.

The cast is led by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, who portrays Gaines; and Oprah Winfrey as his glamorous, long-suffering wife Gloria.

Whitaker does a stunning job as the butler and the most striking moment in the film comes at the end where, as a retired 80-something, he returns to the White House to meet Barack Obama.

The staggered walk of an old man that Whitaker masters is worthy of a standing ovation.

Winfrey holds her own. She is sincere and believable in the role of the long eyelash loving Gloria. She shows the same intensity that won her critical acclaim in The Color Purple.

Gaines is portrayed as a passive observer of the political change in the US and the fishbowl of the White House.

The film – produced by Lee Daniels, whose credits include Precious and Monster’s Ball – is also hinged on historical markers and epoch-making moments as the US struggled to balance its troubled race relations against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and forging its place in the world as the Vietnam War raged on.

Gaines’ story is told from the Jim Crow deep south of the 1920s, where he was born. His father was shot dead in cold blood by the master and he is taken in as the “house nigger”.

His mother Hattie Pearl (played by Mariah Carey) becomes mentally unstable and he flees the south for better opportunities up north.

His destiny is rewritten when he breaks into a bakery to steal cake, begs for a job and is set on the path as a waiter, eventually becoming a butler.

Gaines’ tumultuous family life reaches a crescendo when his son Louis (David Oyelowo) moves to the south only to be part of the defiance campaigns there, including the Freedom Rides and the Woolworth lunch counter sit-in.

The trouble is that White House staffers steer clear of politics. Their focus is to serve.

Cuba Gooding Jr, Lenny Kravitz and Terrence Howard appear as Whitaker’s colleagues in the kitchen and corridors of the White House.

Then comes the star parade of US presidents as portrayed by Robin Williams (Eisenhower), John Cusack (Richard Nixon), James Marsden (John F Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (Lyndon B Johnson) and Alan Rickman (Reagan). Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford appear as themselves, courtesy of archive footage that is woven into the story.

Some critics see it as part of an Obama propaganda campaign.

City Press political reporter Carien du Plessis believes that it puts Obama in a feel-good light just because he is black, and the film fails to interrogate the nuances of his politics.

She added that it casts him in the tradition of a “noble savage”.

Some conservatives believe Reagan was misrepresented and that he was not racist.

His stance on South Africa was based on a fear of communism taking dominance rather than black people taking power.

Regardless, this is one of the most important films of the year and the Oscar buzz is justified.

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