The Butler review: Forest Whittaker shines in underwhelming historical biopic

Posted on 19 November 2013
By Craig Kell
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Hollywood’s obsession with real-life movies and tackling slavery continues as Lee Daniels takes us on a fascinating, yet jarring journey through American history with The Butler.

From the point of view of our titular character, The Butler deals with racism in a brutal way with the opening shot showing two African-American men hanging from a signpost.

It is then swiftly followed by an even more shocking scene of young Cecil witnessing two horrible acts committed against his parents and a reminder of the magnitude of cruelty that many African-Americans suffered.

The focus of Cecil’s time working in the White House makes compelling viewing as we see the various individuals he serves under and their differing views about the state of affairs in America, including JFK’s concern over racism.

But just as interesting are the family moments as Cecil is forced to put up with his wife constantly complaining about his work and more strikingly, his troubled relationship with eldest son Louis.

Both men are part of different generations and struggle to see eye-to-eye when it comes to the race issues as Louis ridicules his father about serving under white men of power whilst he also suffers abuse.

The film’s special effects department deserve particular applause for their measured use of prosthetic makeup to capture the ravages of time on the characters.

Not only does it deal with the aging process, but is also used meticulously on the various actors portraying real-life figures.

Even when we see Cecil and Gloria at an old age, their mannerisms work well with the amount of makeup placed on them.

Leading from the front, Forest Whittaker carries the burden with his likeable portrayal of Cecil as he conveys a mixture of humbleness and sensitivity as we see our main man become frustrated about his duties at work and home.

Just as powerful is Oprah Winfrey as she reminds us of her capable acting skills with a strident performance as a woman who struggles to accept her husband’s responsibilities.

The support cast all have their moments to shine with the likes of Jane Fonda, Alan Rickman and Robin Williams making valuable contributions while British actor David Oyelowo stands out most as the rebellious Louis.

It’s also great to see Cuba Gooding Jr. back on form as he and Lenny Kravitz lend humour to their roles as Cecil’s butler colleagues.

While the story differs from that of the real-life individual Eugene Allen, it is frustrating to read about Allen’s tale, compared to what Gaines goes through particularly as the former had an easier upbringing.

A couple of sub-plots are also tossed aside such as Gloria’s infidelity with neighbour Howard (a wasted Terence Howard) which initially becomes important only to then disappear into thin-air.

Even the inclusion of high-profile names brings the film down with some actors coming and going. This becomes the case for the likes of Mariah Carey and Vanessa Redgrave as both are wasted and nothing more then glorified cameos while you never really believe that Williams and Cusack in particular are playing these presidents apart from being disguised in facially-altered makeup.

While it benefits from award-worthy performances by Forest Whittaker and Oprah Winfrey, The Butler is bogged down by a couple of mis-castings and some unnecessary Hollywood drama.