Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Butler

The twentieth century was one of the most tumultuous and bloody that there was, with more lives lost in warfare than at any other time in history. On a smaller scale, too, those years brought uncertainty, upheaval and change - none more so than to the African-American community in the United States.

'The Butler' tells the story of one man and his family from the late 1920s to the present day as they are faced with the implications for them of racism, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam conflict. The central character, Cecil Gaines, was born and grew up on a cotton plantation in Macon, Georgia and in one fateful day witnesses his mother's rape and his father's murder at the hands of the plantation owner. Taken in by the mildly benevolent matriarch, he becomes a house servant until, for fear of his own life, he runs away, eventually ending up working in a hotel in Washington DC.

There he is 'spotted' by a White House staff member and is offered a position as a junior butler at the White House, and there he serves eight presidents during the course of a long and distinguished career, from Eisenhower to Reagan. These, as I've hinted at above, were particularly turbulent times for the American people, particularly the black community, and the story of their struggle for equality is played out on both the political and personal stage, as Gaines's son, Louis, becomes increasingly politicised and more and more involved in the struggle (and subsequently estranged from his father), and as younger son Charlie loses his life serving in Vietnam.

This was a deeply moving story, with some very strong characterisation and some brilliant cameos from the likes of Robin Williams (Eisenhower), Leiv Schreiber (Johnson), John Cusack (a particularly creepy Nixon) Alan Rickman & Jane Fonda (Ronald & Nancy Reagan), who all portray these iconic leaders in a real and non-caricatured way (it would have been easy to go simply for an impersonation, but they manage to avoid this). But central to the story are the Gaines family: the increasingly radicalised Louis (David Oyelowo); younger brother Charlie, always to some extent under his brother's shadow (Elijah Kelley); the underlying strength of the family, the recovering alcoholic mother & wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey); and the strong-willed and dutiful Cecil (Forest Whitaker). It is their struggles with each other, and with a nation working through the pain and uncertainly of inevitable change and racial tension, that holds the story and these ground-breaking times together. All of the main characters put in very good performances, though at times some of Whitaker's dialogue was a little hard to understand, delivered as they were in a mumbled southern drawl.

Somehow the Gaines family always seemed to 'be there' at these important moments - it almost at times felt like Forrest Gump! Eventually, as the nation reaches the momentous events of 2008 and, it seems, the struggle for justice and equality is won as Barak Obama enters the White House, so Cecil & Louis are reconciled and all is well with the world. Of course we know that there is still a long way to go in terms of full equality and an end to the pernicious blight of racism, but this film does give one hope that we are making progress in the right direction, and does so without the use of too much schmaltz.