Super size, jarring and oddly familiar, this biopic about a long-serving White House butler successfully presses one of the twentieth Century’s largest battles – the African-American Civil Rights movement – against the interior politics of family life.
Cecil Gaines grew up in the 1920s, his formative years shaped by the shooting of his father and his mother’s rape. Years on, Cecil’s son Earl is exposed to the liberal tides of the 1960s, and whilst at University, gets involved in the politics of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Never gratuitous, director Lee Daniels conveys the hopelessly conflicting feelings of generations with ease. And predictably, it’s home life that conjures the biggest tears when The Butler pulls out the big guns in the closing half hour.
Dramatic in every sense, director Lee Daniels and his cast convey life’s bipolarity’s as the tragic often becomes just plain comic. Take portrayals of the White House on the inside – of Lyndon Johnson on the toilet, or of Jane Fonda’s spritzy Nancy Reagan – discreetly caricatured, these greats are vital to the movie, their depictions always lush and variety-full. But Oprah’s damning Gloria Gaines, the wife who dances (and drinks) through generations whilst tugging at the top and tails of Cecil’s career, invites us to experience not just the stresses of work life but those of a family in crisis, via a series of fly-on-wall monologues in mirrors and tense phone calls with her son in 60s-era war zones.
Marred only occasionally by a chronological set up which becomes too staccato at points, the warmth and depth of the character play here will bring The Butler home come awards season. Forest Whitaker’s torturously caring – and cared for – Cecil; James Marsden’s heartbreaking John F Kennedy; the beautiful work of David Banner later in the script when father and son see through the mishaps of the years.
This winter essential delicately aligns America’s pasts, despite the odds.