Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Butler

Forrest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines (real name apparently Eugene Allen)a black American who came from the cotton fields of the deep south to serve as butler to seven American Presidents from 1957 to the 1980s (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan). His father was brutally shot by a cotton farmer (not true, apparently, of the real Eugene Allen). The issues of racial injustice, integration and the civil rights movement provide the real plot-line of the film, the biopic of Gaines being not much more than the vehicle to examine how America struggled with these issues over the eighty or so years covered by the film, from his father's death in 1926 to his presentation to President Obama in 2009.

The closing credits begin with a dedication to those who died in the cause of civil rights in America.

The irony of this of course, as the film emphasises, is that Gaines was an anti-hero from this perspective - a man who lived up to white stereotypes of the 'house-nigger', wearing two faces, the compliant servant in his white masters' presence, a real man when he went back home.

Home however is not always a happy place - his wife Gloria, disillusioned by Gaines' absorption with his job and what went on at the White House which he could not share with her, it is implied has an affair or at least gets close to it; more central to the plot, there is a painful split with his son who joined the Black Panthers and despised his father's lifestyle.

In the end all are reconciled but Gloria dies just too soon to see Obama elected.

So one gets the impression that this is a bit of a propaganda effort by the civil rights lobby, Hollywood congratulating itself and its version of America on getting from racial stereotypes in the 1950s to a black President in 2008. Critics have panned much of its historical accuracy, including a portrayal of Ronald Reagan (brilliantly acted by the wonderful Alan Rickman) as being anti-civil rights. I also found it a little difficult to take entirely seriously a film with Oprah Winfrey in a lead role (Gloria). It is ponderous in parts and predictable in its message, and the video montage of Great Moments in American History from 1960 - 1990 (Kennedy, Vietnam, Luther King, Nixon etc.) is a bit like Forrest Gump without the laughs.

Nonetheless - it is an enjoyable film, the glimpses into White House life evocative of an American 'Downton Abbey'. I am glad to have seen it.

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