The Butler: Powerful and Enjoyable Yet Flawed

Written by Laura Elliott

There’s something very strange about watching this film after seeing 12 Years a Slave only a couple of weeks ago.

There’s something very strange about watching this film after seeing 12 Years a Slave only a couple of weeks ago. It’s impossible not to compare the two on some level, but in The Butler, the all-star cast tackles the civil rights issue 100 years on in an entirely different – and less historically accurate – manner.

Essentially, the film follows the life of Eugene Allen (fictionally renamed as Cecil Gaines), a remarkable man with a window into history. During his life as a black butler in the White House, Allen served every President of the United States from Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan, and then, startlingly, lived to see Obama take office. 

Taken at face value, this is a powerful and remarkably enjoyable film which gives a 21st century audience an insight into the civil rights movement, as seen through the eyes of someone with a ringside seat to politics, but little to no influence on its direction.

Restrained performances, dubious historicising

In the title role as Allen, Forest Whitaker is poised, emotional and occasionally very funny. However, with the weight of a mostly fictionalised back-story to contend with, including the childhood trauma of seeing his father gunned down on a cotton plantation and a politically-active son in the Black Panthers, The Butler sometimes seems a little too “Hollywood.”

A cycle of famous faces playing the various Presidents both adds and takes something away from an entertaining and poignant script. James Marsden as “good-guy” Kennedy is a little too squeaky clean. John Cusack as Nixon gives a very believable performance of a man losing his grip on the presidency. Robin Williams as Eisenhower is bumbling and endearing, yet a little too closeted by his “funny man” image. 

Personally, I found Alan Rickman’s portrayal of Ronald Reagan to be a surprising highlight. In his first scene with Whitaker, Rickman swears his butler to secrecy and entrusts him with the task of sending money to – we assume – a member of the public who’s pleaded for help. 

During this first entrance, Rickman is a thoroughly believable President. As with most of his roles, it’s easy as an audience to breathe a sigh of relief knowing that an actor with natural ability has taken to the screen. The only real “bum note” came when the resolutely English actor with one of the most recognisable voices in the industry, stumbled over his affected American accent on the word “veto.”

Reagan’s discussion of his plan to veto any civil rights bill did, unfortunately, lose some emotional weight from there.

Disturbing scenes

Having seen 12 Years recently, there’s nothing in The Butler to rival the emotional punch McQueen’s production packed. Despite this, during one particularly harrowing scene in which Allen’s son Louis is attacked on the Freedom Bus by hoards of the KKK, the entire cinema recoiled.

As windows were shattered and the white supremacists – their faces hooded and cloaked -brandished flame torches and baseball bats, Louis’ one concern is to protect his girlfriend from the unjustified hatred and brutality surfacing all around them.

Scenes such as this one are successfully counterpointed by the civility of life in the White House, and a difficult but loving marriage between Allen and his wife, who is played superbly by the underrated Oprah Winfrey. 

Flawed but enjoyable

Some moments occasionally seemed a little contrived. The historical inaccuracies were a little disappointing, and there was a certain element of an Upstairs-Downstairs morality taking centre stage.

Despite this, The Butler is brilliantly acted, wonderfully entertaining, and awash with well-known, talented actors and actresses. It doesn’t manage to scale the heights of films such as 12 Years, but then again, most productions don’t. 

Allen’s personal struggle between subservience, dignity, honour, and his life as a family man are highlighted perfectly by Whittaker’s nuanced performance. The cyclical nature of the Presidents in the White House throws Obama’s momentous triumph as the incumbent President into stark relief, and I defy anyone not to feel a certain sense of pride and pleasure during his inauguration speech.

All in all, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film that’s well worth watching—just as long as you don’t mind your historical dramas a little less than strictly accurate. 

What do you think of The Butler? Have your say in the comments section below.