If I’d been paying closer attention I’d have realised that The Butler was probably about race relations. But then again, maybe not. It stars Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, but the movie blurb seems deliberately anodyne. So anodyne in fact that if I wasn’t a political tragic, I probably wouldn’t have been moved to go and see it (that and a free ticket to the preview from Hopscotch Films – thanks Samantha Brooks).
Inspired by a true story and set against the tumultuous backdrop of 20th century American history, ‘The Butler’ stars Forest Whitaker alongside a stellar ensemble cast including Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, John Cusack, Robin Williams, Alan Rickman and Vanessa Redgrave to name just a few. This epic drama chronicles the story of Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), who for three decades served as chief butler for eight consecutive US presidents including Dwight D. Eisenhower, JFK, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Working intimately with these world leaders at the White House, Gaines became a firsthand witness to history and the inner workings of the Oval Office. From there he watched the changing tides of American politics and race relations, experiencing the effects as both an insider and a family man.
While I teared-up a few times (people putting their lives on the line in the interests of humanity and justice has that effect on me) there were other times when I bristled. Forest Whitaker delivered a sensitive portrayal of his character, but there was an annoying Forrest Gump quality to it – could one man’s life really have had so many intersections with the historically notable?
The piece is also stacked-full of Democrat-aligned actors, not in itself a bad thing when they are of the quality of Vanessa Redgrave, Robyn Williams and Jane Fonda, but a pointer that this movie might lean on the didactic side.
And there was one spot at the end where I felt I’d stumbled into the longest Democrat political ad in history. They wouldn’t do that would they? Yes they could.
A number of US presidents make an appearance, most portrayed by an actor, but Gerald Ford and Billy Carter are glossed-over in file footage, presumably because nothing significant enough in race relations happened on their watch.
The most intriguing presidential portrayal was Reagan. I’m not sure what Nancy would have thought to be portrayed by “Hanoi Jane”, but Reagan came across as a personally decent, though morally wrong, man. While supporting apartheid South Africa, he is the president who ensures that the Whitehouse’s black domestic staff get the same pay as the white ones.
That there can be many ways of achieving the same ends is the central tension in the movie, realised in the attitudes of the black butler and his son.
If you want a refresher on the black civil rights movement in the US, and a reminder that while the US sees itself as the great defender of liberty, as little as 50 years ago a huge percentage of its population was still living in virtual slavery as less than second class citizens this is it.
It’s a refresher worth taking.