So, it turns out you can be stuffed full of good, fun performances, describe a man’s life, and still be so worthy it chokes the meaning out of your story. This film, watched by all the usuals on a Sunday afternoon, outlines the journey of black Americans through a twentieth century that starts with the vile murder or our hero’s father, takes him to butlering privately, then on to butlering a White House through generations of change. It stars Forest Whitaker in a gloriously measured performance. He is The Butler.
It starts in the same shocking place as the other great African-American biography, Roots. Whitaker’s Dad is shot in the face by his “owner’s” son. A blamed but unpunished white shit, there aren’t words to describe the inhumanity of what he does. It is portrayed to wrench the sympathy from you and make Whitaker’s Cecil Gaines a distinct person on a unique journey. Initially patronised by Vanessa Redgrave in grandma-with-a-nearly-heart mode, he is taken into the house as a servant-slave, from a kind of pity, and gifted a career of making the room feel empty with his subtle service.
The film seems to make the point that, whilst this is ostensibly dreadful and simply an angle on slavery, it puts a black man into the developing American story. Unavoidably, this part of humanity held apart is not apart at all. Gaines graduates through happenstance and snobbery to the White House, marrying Oprah Winfrey (his stressed, drunk, loving wife) and producing David Oyelowo as son Louis. Oyelowo, since the glory days of Spooks, seems to have made a career of playing pointed American or African roles – here embracing every milestone in the civil rights journey. Anyhow, Whitaker is a silent river running through a turbulent sea.
Which makes the thing feel very theoretical and high-minded, losing the character focus that made Alex Haley’s story work. This is about history torturing caricatures, where Roots made you angry for the people you’d got to know. Still, if you enjoy flipping through picture books of history, The Butler works. There are vignettes and cameos that take in bus-based violence, protests in cafés that are simply dreadful, incomprehensible, screaming racism set against domestic grumpiness, snobbery and love and…president after president taking their food and character-acting chops from Whitaker’s Gaines.
Alas, they too are simplified by the happenstance of cameos: Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Shreiber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman…good liberals making a point. Even Jane Fonda pops in to distract as Nancy Reagan. So, this looks for a while not so much like the story of black America taking its agency, as a modern Liberal America wanting to believe its Office of Presidential Decency helped rather than received the process.
And through it all, Whitaker does the implicit reflection, holding the anger and drive of history and his son at arms’ length, until reality catches up with him and the film twists into a happy ending. I’m fairly sure the anger of watching your father shot in the face for being there, the act unpunished, would need a release outwith this air of noble grace. But that’s a reality this comfortable old man has never known.
A bit flat, too nice, too full of show-off cameos, this film highlights the challenge of telling a real-man’s fictionalised story without a natural beginning, catastrophic middle, or exciting ending.
We spend the length of The Butler watching a man watching – and rejecting – the real story his son was living. Hmmm.
Whitaker is terrfic.