Film review: The Butler - serving up an era of change for America

Dir. Lee Daniels Starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, 132mins (12A)

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Forest Whitaker stars in this broad, Oscar-friendly and widely appealing drama from the director of Precious and The Paperboy, as Cecil Gaines – a character whose life story intersects, Forrest Gump-style, with several of the most significant moments in the history of US politics and race relations.

Cecil is raised on a cotton plantation in Twenties Georgia. But after his father is casually murdered by an overseer, he is taken out of the fields and trained as a "house nigger"; training that stands him in stead for a life in domestic service during which he becomes the White House butler to the American presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan.

His son Louis (David Oyelowo), by not so subtle way of contrast, becomes an increasingly strident member of the Civil Rights movement, a Freedom Rider, and a member of Martin Luther King's inner circle.

The events of the script – both historical and personal – are overly compressed; its tone is often declamatory; and some of the casting is gimmicky (John Cusack as Richard Nixon? Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan!).

And yet, nevertheless, Whitaker's performance, and the dignity with which Gaines' comports himself, seem to say something moving and true about the pain endured by the pre-Civil Rights generation of black Americans.