The Butler is a frustrating film. On the one hand it’s an implausible tearjerker that feels too much like the syrupy 1994 film Forrest Gump.
But it also includes a thrilling dramatisation of some of the great struggles of the US civil rights movement.
Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a black butler at the White House based very loosely on the real life Eugene Allen. He serves tea in the background of some historic events, and gets to meet a lot of US presidents.
Gaines is around when the military has to intervene to help nine black students enrol at the previously all-white Little Rock college in Arkansas despite opposition from the state governor.
He sees president Kennedy call for equality only to be shot, with the misleading implication that things would have been better if he’d lived.
And he overhears politicians wondering whether the demand for Black Power could be made acceptable by making it about black businesses.
But Cecil prides himself on keeping out of politics—though his rapport with benevolent presidents does help him win equal wages among White House staff, despite the opposition of a rude white boss.
The real conflict comes through his two sons. Louis is a radical civil rights activist while Charlie goes to fight in Vietnam.
At times their highly symbolic differences seem a bit forced. But Louis’ journey is exciting.
We see him and his girlfriend Carol training with the Black Panther Party, sitting in at the whites counter of segregated cafes and joining mixed freedom rides on segregated buses.
They face horrible abuse from racists. They are also frozen out by Cecil for many years. But as Cecil gets older he gets more political. He’s disillusioned by Charlie’s death in Vietnam.
When Ronald Reagan—whose portrayal by Alan Rickman has offended the right wing former president’s heirs—refuses to break with apartheid South Africa it’s the last straw.
Cecil doesn’t lose his temper. He just leaves the White House, reunites with his now slightly mellower activist son and even gets briefly thrown in jail for protesting against apartheid.
I enjoyed seeing Cecil eventually come to see that it is right to stand up and fight. But the film is undermined by its sentimental script.
And it’s frustrating to see it end on Cecil’s euphoria over the election of current president Barack Obama, a result that it holds up almost as if it’s a fitting culmination of the civil rights movement.