Living the events of the past through the eyes of another individual, especially a life that spans many key, historical events, is a great way to present a movie differently. Forrest Gump did it very well, covering the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and Watergate by showing it from a simple, ordinary man’s eyes – albeit one who managed to embroil himself in the events themselves from time to time.
This is where The Butler does things slightly differently. We are watching the events through the eyes of White House butler Cecil Gaines but those eyes have witnessed the terms of numerous American Presidents so consequently has also seen some of the most explosive and controversial moments in American history, from the seat of power itself.
It is a great story-telling device and works well because of the vein of truth that runs through the whole movie. I’m sure some of the movie has been embellished and developed beyond fact but it always feel genuine and holds your interest more because of this. It also helps that the key event that Cecil Gaines is living through is the violent Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s.
This manages to impact upon Gaines himself and his family. The White House doesn’t exactly escape racism but we also get to see events such as the Civil Rights sit-ins and impact of the Black Panthers through Gaines’ son, Louis. Like Forrest Gump, Vietnam is brought into the fold too, having a direct impact on the central family.
The story works excellently but is brought up a level by the cast that embodies it. Forest Whitaker plays the central, titular Butler and manages to balance the polite, silent and professional role at the White House with the conflict that is erupting at home, demonstrating the divide between his house and The White House. In a foreshadowing for movies to come; the Civil Rights activist in the family is played by David Oyelowo. He is a Black Panther before he steps into the shoes of Martin Luther King this last year.
The movie will live and die on the support though, especially with the huge roles that need to be played. Oprah Winfrey is Gaines’ wife, with peer support from both Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. They do a decent job but it is the numerous Presidents who will make the film successful. This is where some are wasted and others do an excellent job. Robin Williams is Eisenhower and under-plays the comedy aspect, while John Cusack seems a strange but passable choice for Richard Nixon. The strangest but oddly successful choice is Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. He borders on impression rather than portrayal but does a very good job and you forget this is the guy who tried to throw Bruce Willis from the top of a skyscraper.
The film is about the story though and the tale told here is one of worth. It covers a key moment in American history but from a perspective we haven’t necessarily seen before. The journey of this one character will amaze and inspire and considering he is as ordinary and as much of a bystander as someone like Forrest Gump, the tale is made more amazing because it’s true.
Overall, The Butler is a unique way to do a historical movie. It takes the point of view of one, ordinary man, albeit one with a very unique job, and then stretches it through one of the most influential and eventful moments in American History. The cast does an excellent job, especially Forest Whitaker, who shares the screen with many acting greats but is never over-shadowed. A unique but successful look at the Civil Rights movement.
Rating – 4
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