Entertaining and ritzy drama about a White House butler with cameos from Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams and John Cusack
Director Lee Daniels elected himself as a righteous spoke-person for social rights issues with the award-winning Precious, only to crash and burn with the ridiculously sleazy all-star potboiler The Paperboy. The Butler sees Daniels get his teeth into something more respectable, a black history heritage piece following the years of service of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) as he tends to the needs of eight presidents over several decades in The White House.
Gaines experience may be a true-life story, but The Butler is pure Hollywood moonshine. Introduced working in the cotton fields, Gaines can only watch as his mother (Mariah Carey) is raped by evil Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), but kindly Annabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) teaches him about the joys of service, and soon Gaines is on his way to the White House. Understanding the importance of his role, and always prepared to put the needs of his white employers before his personal beliefs, Gaines serves under a roll-call of extended cameos. Robin Williams plays a genial Dwight Eisenhower, James Marsden slickly impersonates JFK, Liev Schreiber is a slimy Lyndon Johnson, John Cusack is even slimier as Richard Nixon, and things are topped off with Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
Such stunt-casting pays-off by sweetening the bitter taste of The Butler’s parallel story, in which Gaines struggles to control his son Earl (David Banner), who rejects his father’s submission to take an active role in the civil rights movement, winning the grudging admiration of his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey). This allows Daniels and writer Danny Strong to fast-forward through highlights of civil rights movement in compelling fashion, and gives Whitaker something to emote about as he realizes his compliance is at odds with his family’s defiance. Long, ponderous, but undeniably entertaining, The Butler is a ritzy crash-course in US political change.
General release from Fri 15 Nov.