Movie review: The Butler (NC16)

Movie review: The Butler (NC16)
Cinema still: The Butler starring Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker

The Butler (NC16)

132 minutes/Opens Thursday, Oct 24/**½

Shallow look at American racial history 

The story: Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) has come from a hard childhood in cotton plantation. Married to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), he is the head butler in the White House, where he witnesses historic moments in civil rights history under presidents Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Kennedy (James Marsden), Nixon (John Cusack) and Reagan (Alan Rickman). The lives of his two sons, too, become tied up in the racial politics of the United States.

This work tells the story of the civil rights movement in America through the medium of family melodrama, a strategy that works well enough for the first 40 minutes or so.

After that, the Gaines clan bickering and hugging, intercut with snippets of presidents acting presidential and protesters protesting, wear out their welcome. The result is tedium.

The weaknesses here echo the ones of The Iron Lady (2011), the biopic of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher which spent the bulk of its time illustrating the plight of a lonely older woman, rather than dealing with her identity as a polarising and controversial politician.

Likewise, this work dwells on, and seems most comfortable in, the Gaines household. When the focus shifts to national politics, the viewer gets no deeper insight than what might be offered with a quick browse of Wikipedia.

Gaines, a fictional figure based on a newspaper article about an actual black White House butler, is the audience's window to history. Through his eyes, the audience is witness to pivotal events in the fight for racial equality.

The list is long - the federal enforcement of desegregation in the South, the busing of black children to White schools, the war in Vietnam, the rise of the militant Black Panther movement, the sanctions on apartheid-era South Africa.

And therein lies the problem. The film compresses decades, so we see actors as striplings, become middle-aged, then appear with layers of wrinkly prosthetics on their faces.

As teachers like to say at the start of the term, pay attention because there is a lot of material to get through.

Director Lee Daniels, nominated for an Oscar for Precious (2009), and co-screenwriter Danny Strong (Game Change, 2012) whisk the audience away on a hurried bus tour of black history, from the slave- labour cotton fields to the start of the first Obama term.

Along the way, there is a lot of cameo spotting.

Look out the window, it is Mariah Carey as Cecil's mum and there is John Cusack as Nixon - and these are just a couple of the bizarre casting choices.

There are other unintentional comic lapses such as when the Panthers appear in leather and huge afros, images associated with cheesy blaxploitation cinema.

Frost/Nixon (2008) and The Queen (2006) concerned themselves with just a slice of history, rather than serving the whole pie. If only Daniels and Strong had gone deep, rather than wide.

johnlui@sph.com.sg


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