The Butler is the very embodiment of an ‘awards bait’ movie. It’s a serious minded triumph-over-adversity story, based on recent American history, features famous actors playing well known real life figures, and takes on an important social issue without losing any sentiment. To add to that it’s headed by a previous Oscar winner, directed by an Oscar nominee and, what a surprise, executively produced by king of Oscar campaigning Harvey Weinstien. Shy of adding Meryl Streep to the cast, there’s little more The Butler could have done to try and win over the hearts of academy voters.
Its structure also bears a superficial resemblance to Academy favourite Forrest Gump (though it’s nowhere near as inventive or charming as that film), as its protagonist is witness to numerous important events in twentieth century history, though the focus here is almost entirely on civil rights. Oddly, the recent film The Butler most warrants comparison to is the distinctly non-Oscar aspiring The Conjuring. That was a very effective, deftly handled horror film that only really suffered on its insistence that it was ‘a true story’. Now in fairness, The Butler does not jam its factual credentials at you the way The Conjuring did, beginning with a solemn ‘inspired by’ title card, but throughout the film it is clearly trying to present itself as a historical drama. Its poster also boasts screenwriter Danny Strong’s name, known for the recent fact-based political dramas Recount and Game Change.
The Butler‘s story seemed too good to be true, and alas it turns out it is, but it still came as something of a surprise to learn that the butler himself Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who serves in the White House for years under many different presidents, was in fact not even a real person, and only loosely based on one.
Certainly there’s nothing new about ‘fact-based’ films altering things for dramatic effect, The Butler’s way of doing this is to begin with a very young Cecil witnessing his mother raped and his father murdered by a racist farm owner, which apparently did not actually happen. It’s somewhat more restrained after that but the racial tension present throughout the film fuels one of its major plotlines, also fictitious, in which Gaines’ son Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes an activist at college, ultimately becoming more of a radical and joining the Black Panther party.
However, unlike the over-dramatic treatment Cecil’s backstory is given, his son’s journey is where the film holds real interest. Louis’s story is mostly told in parallel to his father’s, as he willingly moves to the South, only to suffer horrendous abuse and come out undeterred, then to find himself clashing with his father back home. Honestly, they could have made him the sole focus of the film and it might have been better off. Of the galaxy of stars that appear in this film, most only get seconds of screen time, usually just to have Gaines briefly interact with them in some way, even the smallest bit parts seem to be played by famous faces, but Oyelowo gets to stand out.
That’s not to hold anything against Whitaker, who’s quietly dignified performance anchors the film, but often The Butler isn’t too clear on whether Gaines is actually supposed to be seriously affecting the important events he’s witness to or just observing them.
The Butler virtually screams its importance at you at begs to be taken seriously, but among the very well-acted but soapy domestic melodrama and famous actors playing presidents there’s some great material about America’s deplorable history of racism and the civil rights struggle, and that’s what makes the film worthwhile.