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The Butler - Review

The Butler

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 2.5 out of 5

LEE Daniels’ The Butler may lay claim to being based on a true story but the version of history it subsequently serves up owes a lot more to Hollywood convention.

Inspired by a Washington Post article on Eugene Allen, a black butler who spent 34 years serving at the White House under eight Presidents, this is a deeply fictionalised account of that man’s experiences which is often as clumsy as it is well meaning. But quite why it had to play so fast and loose with the truth remains a mystery, particularly given that Allen’s story was arguably strong enough on its own merits.

Forest Whitaker plays the butler in question, re-named Cecil Gaines, who is at the periphery of several landmark decisions in America’s civil rights struggle. His eldest son, meanwhile, battles on the frontlines of the equal rights movement and regularly butts heads with his dad.

As significant as many of the events depicted are, it’s important to note that much of what is attributed to Gaines’ own personal life is pure fabrication. The opening, establishing scenes on a plantation, in which he witnesses his mother raped and his father murdered, never actually took place.

He was also a father of one son (not two, as depicted here) and that son was not an activist. The real-life Allen got on with his job and didn’t become politically active either.

The Butler‘s attempts to add dramatic weight by embellishing the truth does actually work to its detriment, especially as it also feels like a blatant attempt to thrust leading man Whitaker into the awards race. He’s typically great, of course. But did he really need the help?

There’s equally starry support too – some of which serves the film well, yet others that feel like stunt casting designed to lend the film an even higher profile.

Hence, Oprah Winfrey (taking on her first leading big screen role in 15 years) is suitably affecting as Gaines’ wife, while Britain’s David Oyelowo puts in some excellent work as his eldest son. But the likes of John Cusack (as Nixon), Robin Williams (as Eisenhower), Liev Schreiber (Lyndon Johnson), James Marsden (JFK) and Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan) are a little too distracting as the presidents given that their presence has a tendency to pull you out of the story.

Daniels, for his part, seems caught between his desire to have some fun with viewer perception at some points (Lyndon Johnson making policy decisions on the loo being a case in point), while also paying respect to both the suffering and triumphs contained within the civil rights battle. It’s hokey one minute, over-earnest and preachy the next.

And that’s not forgetting the fact that his film has courted a certain amount of controversy for its depiction of Reagan and his views on equality.

Hence, The Butler‘s impact is greatly diminished by its wayward interpretation of fact. It does engage in spite of its flaws (and generous running length) but it actually has more in common with the sugar-coated populist entertainment style of blockbusters such as Forrest Gump. It aspires to an importance it doesn’t ultimately deserve.

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 134mins
UK Release Date: November 15, 2013