The Butler attempts to tell the whole story of the American Civil Rights movement in two and a quarter hours… and it still feels too long. The film follows the life of Cecil Gains (Forest Whittaker); a black man employed as a butler in the White House for thirty years. The narrative, however, never decides between being a moving family drama, an historical epic or an exposé of White House life. Trying to fit in so much leads to a confusing timestream – we see very little of each president and the audience is left to fill in the gaps between Reagan and Obama for themselves giving the impression that racial equality has been at a standstill in the intervening 20 years.
Although the all-star cast of presidents (Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Alan Rickman) had little to do apart from wearing the makeup, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo, as Cecil’s wife and son, put in engaging and believable performances, as does Whittaker himself. Oyelowo’s character gives us the main points of connection with the Civil Rights movement. One of the film’s strongest points is its presentation of the different forms the struggle for equality took. The violence of the Black Panther Party is contrasted with the gradual gaining of trust by black servants through Oyelowo and Whittaker’s relationship. This, as well as Winfrey and Whittaker’s marriage, is superbly acted but again, underdeveloped.
There is no doubt that there are interesting stories but they come through in glimpses rather than fill the narrative. The Butler is a thought-provoking film but unfortunately, its ambitious aspirations are never fully realised. 6/10