The Butler (2013)

The Butler (2013)

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Little did he know, but Robin Williams was silently judging Cecil on the quality of his tea.
Little did he know, but Robin Williams was silently judging Cecil on the quality of his tea.

Twitter Plot Summary: Following the life of Cecil Gaines as he moves from the cotton plantations to working as a butler in the White House.

Genre: Biography/Drama

Director: Lee Daniels

Key Cast: Forest Whitaker, David Banner, Mariah Carey, Vanessa Redgrave, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Terence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr, Lenny Kravitz, Robin Williams, John Cusack, Olivia Washington, James Marsden, Liev Shreiber, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda

Five Point Summary:

1. Robin Williams!
2. James Marsden!
3. Liev Schrieber!
4. John Cusack!
5. Alan Rickman!

The Butler follows the life of Cecil Gaines, from his early years on a cotton farm to employment as a waiter in a bar, to ultimately serving as a butler in the White House, a position he holds for many years and across several presidential eras. A modern black history story in the same style as Forrest Gump, if you will. By comparison, The Butler falls short in almost every respect.

The problem with The Butler is that there is very little depth given to anybody in the story. Sure, there’s the disagreements between father and son and the comaderie between all of the butlers serving at the White House, but otherwise it’s a very passive look at this period in history. Also, other than the big historical events that take place, not much really happens to any of the characters we’re supposed to care about.The most depth goes to Cecil’s son Louis, but that’s only because he’s directly involved in the civil rights movement. Other than that he has no defining characteristics. Gaines lacks personality and just gets on with his job. Rarely prone to any form of emotional outburst, he just stands in the background whether he’s supposed to or not. This extends to his home life as well, where Oprah Winfrey does what she can as his wife, but ultimately has very little clout.

Furthermore you’re often distracted by the numerous cameos as each new President arrives to take office. It’s often a fun little distraction, but it does take you out of the story somewhat. There’s also the problem with the story itself – it’s inspired by real events rather than based on them, so the life of Cecil Gaines is fiction. I don’t have any issues at all with the themes raised (more on that shortly), but it would’ve grounded the character more in reality had he and his family not been quite so involved in key historical events. As it is, it’s all a touch too convenient in terms of narrative for it to feel real – having one son join the Black Panthers and the other head off to war in Vietnam for example, that’s a bit too on the nose. Even so, the script relies on these significant historical events to generate an emotional response, and that’s where my reactions came in. It certainly wasn’t based on the characters or their reaction to those events, as in all honesty they don’t have much to say about them – the same applies to the film as a whole. Yes these were important events, but ultimately it’s not saying anything noteworthy about those events.

Yes, that is Alan Rickman. The movie is saved.
Yes, that is Alan Rickman. The movie is saved.

Whilst all of the character’s background is fictionalised, I can at least applaud it for approaching the civil rights movement with an even hand. As a free thinking liberal type it still amazes me that racial intolerance still existed in such a vitriolic form only 50-odd years ago. It still exists even today, but thankfully not to the same extent. Even so, the mere fact that people can be so ignorant and biased towards others simply because they’re different appalls me. Without wanting to jump on my soapbox, the world needs less small-minded bigotry and more of an appreciation of the differences that make us all unique. Now, I’m not saying you have to like any of the qualities displayed by others, but you need to at least respect their right to exist without fear of persecution and their right to their own beliefs. There’s a lot out there that I disagree with because that’s a fact of human nature, but from a moral perspective I can at least apprciate that it’s the differences between us all that make the world a better place. I admit there’s a double standard in there – respect that others have the right to believe what they like, but think harshly of those with morally ambiguous beliefs – but despite that it’s films like The Butler that raise these ideas and whilst we have made great strides in terms of acceptance of other creeds, there’s still plenty to be done. I won’t be happy until we have a world like the one seen in Star Trek The Next Generation. One day we might get there.

Favourite scene: The civil rights movement sit in white-only seats at the diner and refuse to move.

Quote: “We have no tolerance for politics at the White House.”

Silly Moment: The 70s arrive and Olivia has a massive Foxy Brown afro.

Score: 3/5

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