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Cecil Gaines is a butler serving at the White House. But his job is far from part-time. From that first phone call he receives in 1957 to his resignation in the 1980’s, Cecil literally becomes a part of the furniture, who lives out history’s most epic events and witnesses things he wish he hadn’t.
A human TARDIS, Cecil is propelled in and out of historic happenings – which are only the background of the incredible lessons he learns along the way..
Got to be honest. When I saw the advert for this movie – even the poster – I thought it looked crap. Boring. A man in a smart suit and white gloves staring out of a window – great. Another “let’s throw as many celebrities in as we can, and try create something the audience will relate to” piece of shite..
This movie – was brilliant.
The ensemble who glued this movie together were bloody excellent. Unlike most features where the batch of A-lister celebs smother the screen with way too much of their own personality (A-HEM, Love Actually), this lot don’t. We have the likes of Jane Fonda, Robin Williams and Mariah Carey who grace the screen with their cameo-style appearances; there are no lengthy drawn-out (A-HEM, Love Actually) stories with each character. They literally give us a ‘one-in, one-out’ showcase, which keeps the movie flowing nicely.
The ensemble actually reminded me a little of my school days; I remember one year (the morning of the last day of school term before the Christmas holiday), us kids sat in the school hall waiting for the routine assembly to begin. And suddenly, we were faced with a mock-nativity play performed by our familiar teachers.. This is what watching The Butler was like; your favourite / well-known oldies jumping on stage to play the part of extremely popular historic characters. The enthusiasm and passion is there – and they are bloody good sports for doing it.
Again, this team were bloody excellent. As if each one had been called in specifically to entertain as well as portray a very important character. Just superb.
The story begins with a frail old man sat on a chair outside the reception room of the White House. It is Cecil – he is at the White House for a meeting with President Obama. But as he sits there, he begins pondering the events which lead up to this moment. In a way, he never left the White House at all..
In the mid-1920’s, Cecil was a little boy who grew up on a cotton plantation. But tragic events lead to his father being shot dead in front of him, and his mother becoming mute due to the incident. Cecil is immediately taken in by farm caretaker Annabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) and is reassigned to House Nigger by her. (cue gasps from the audience)
Fast forward through Cecil growing up and leaving the plantation, breaking into a hotel in order to secure some food for himself, and the hotel manager subsequently hiring him to work there, and we suddenly see our protagonist hired by a hotel in Washington D.C. Cecil has learned many waitering skills from the man who hired him, and is therefore perfect for the role. Cecil soon meets a young lady named Gloria – who shortly becomes his wife, and they have two sons. All seems rather content with the couple – until another life-changing event takes place.. in 1957, Cecil is offered a butler position at the famous White House. And so begins a journey of witnessing incredible political history, from behind the scenes.
In 1961, racism was at its highest – and one scene in this movie showed it. In fact, the scene was bloody terrifying. Cecil’s son Louis is a student at Fisk University – and one night, is travelling on a bus through Alabama with a dozen of his fellow (black) classmates. But out of the fog comes a gigantic, glowing crucifix – the Ku Klux Klan. Louis screams at the driver to turn the bus around, but it is too late; the bus comes to a halt as dozens of white cloaks surround it. The black people hold each other as the vehicle is rocked side to side, windows smashed and white hoods stare through the windows. But then comes the finale – one of the cloaked people lights a petrol bomb, and the bus becomes an inferno.
I felt really sad watching this scene. Seriously. From the first feeling of dread as the crucifix in lightbulbs appeared, through to the bus erupting, I felt a real stab of anger in the back of my mind. I can honestly say that if I was alive in 60’s America, I would’ve been terrified – I’m not black, but just watching what those poor people had to go through – just because of the colour of their skin – was insane!
Dread. Fear. Panic. Judgement. Its all displayed, and just adds to the emotions the movie engulfs its audience with.
Throughout The Butler, genuine footage of actual events is used; from President Kennedy to the birth of black (people) pop music. It was quite nice to break away from ‘movie land’ for a second and take notice of the genuine article without it disrupting the movie itself. Again, anger within myself at the footage of black schoolchildren being smashed with jets of water from fire hoses, in racist attempts to ‘wash’ them. But overall, it hit home – all the footage shown was gutting but honest.
I dislike Forest Whitaker. His strokey left eye scares me (turns out he actually has Strabismus – he did not have a stroke) and I find him extremely bland. A man whose characters are always same old, same old. I think I first saw him in 2002’s Panic Room, and thought, “what is this human being?”
Flash-forward 2002 to 2013, and I am very impressed. Forest glides effortlessly through this movie; he doesn’t under-do or over-do it. I think he was cast perfectly as Cecil, and this role is where he definitely shone. His confident and modest, yet slightly insecure characteristics as a butler at the White House were quite endearing and (dare I say it) a joy to watch. My personal opinion of Forest has risen slightly – no I’m not totally bowled over by the bloke, but I think The Butler was his time. His chance to give us everything he’s got. And we certainly got it.
One scene toward the end of the movie – where Cecil and Gloria are very old – made me laugh.. As Cecil is making tea for the two of them, he lifts the kettle and pours hot water into a mug. As he does so, his hand shakes uncontrollably from old age. This is perhaps irrelevant to point out, but the “I’ve gotten old” thing was well played by him.
As previously mentioned, the movie benefits from a cast ensemble. This is who they were:
Oprah Winfrey – Gloria Gaines
Forest Whitaker – Cecil Gaines
Mariah Carey – Hattie Pearl
Alex Pettyfer – Thomas Westfall
Vanessa Redgrave – Annabeth Westfall
Cuba Gooding Jr. – Carter Wilson
Lenny Kravitz – James Holloway
Robin Williams – President Dwight D. Eisenhower
James Marsden – President John F. Kennedy
Liev Schreiber – President Lyndon B. Johnson
John Cusack – President Richard Nixon
Alan Rickman – President Ronald Regan
Jane Fonda – First Lady, Nancy Regan
The Butler is dedicated to the Civil Rights Act (as it states at the end credits) – and rightly so. Without spoiling much of the movie, you get your fair dosage of this. Real footage and some great script envelope true events, and put them across to the audience very well throughout its screen time. But this is far from a boring documentary that drones on forever – and this is probably its best element; blending a script with a real happening. A historical fiction drama at its best.
As well as John F. Kennedy, the movie highlights other historic figures, such as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Vietnam, the congressional sanction against South Africa, and Barack Obama’s election as President.
I was about to mention what happens in the final few moments of the movie, as it is actually very good – a mix of sad and funny emotion which wraps it all up nicely. But I’ll leave that for you indulge in yourselves.
Overall, The Butler was a refreshing surprise – and a classic example of a ‘book I judged by its cover’ before I went to see it. Because what I assumed would be a load of political bollocks, actually resulted in a nicely-constructed, emotion-fuelled factual slice of entertainment.
I’m glad I went.