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Film review: The Butler

On October 31, 2013

By Sophia Whitfield

The Butler took its genesis from an interview inspired by the weeks leading up to Barack Obama’s historic election in 2008. The Washington Post writer and former foreign correspondent Wil Haygood made it his mission to seek out an African American who had worked in the White House. After many phone calls Haygood found Eugene Wallis. He was 89 and had served under eight presidents from the 1950s through to the 1980s. He had witnessed the Civil Rights movement along with some of the nations most defining events. Haygood met with Wallis and his wife Helene profiling him in The Washington Post following Obama’s victory.

“A Butler Well Served by This Election”, the story of Eugene Wallis, became the story of Cecil Gaines allowing for fictional changes to help the film achieve its goal. Director Lee Daniels, fresh from his Oscar-winning success Precious, came on board along with a stellar cast.

The story opens in 1926 as Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is fleeing the South looking for better prospects. As Gaines grows from boy to man he learns that reward comes with loyalty and hard work as he lands himself an enviable job as the butler in the White House. From 1957 to 1986 Gaines serves seven presidents through some of the most tumultuous times in American politics.

Married to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), Gaines is able to provide his wife and two sons with the middle class life he has always dreamed possible. Gaines’s attitude is to keep his head down and avoid trouble in order to gain the respect of his peers. However as his sons grow to men they see the segregation their father has accepted all his life as untenable. Gaines’s eldest son (David Oyelowo) joins the Black Panther movement to prove his point. Conflict in the Gaines family arises as Cecil Gaines has to constantly bail his son out of trouble.

This period in American history follows some of the most troubled times, shining the spotlight on politics and race relations, from the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, to the Freedom Riders and Black Panther movements, to the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal.

The film showcases an incredible supporting cast that includes Yaya Alafia, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr, Terrence Howard, Elijah Kelley, Minka Kelly, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber and Robin Williams,

Alan Rickman is virtually unrecognisable as Ronald Reagan and Jane Fonda has all the mannerisms that endeared Nancy Reagan to a nation. John Cusack plays the lowly Nixon with suitable indifference and Vanessa Redgrave is gloriously matriarchal as the owner of the property Cecil Gaines escapes from.

The Butler is long, but condensing it would not have been an option as so much history and time unfolds within this film. Cecil Gaines is without a doubt the quiet hero of this epic. Throughout his life he witnesses more change than he ever imagined possible. His humble dignity inspires those around him, those whose secrets he has held for many years.  Forest Whitaker is sheer brilliance as he embodies the character of Cecil Gaines, ably supported by Oprah Winfrey.

This historical drama is well worth a trip to the cinema.

The Butler is released today in cinemas across Australia.

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