Magazine article The Spectator

Cinema Poor Service

Magazine article The Spectator

Cinema Poor Service

Article excerpt

The Butler 12A, Nationwide The Butler tells the story of an African American butler at the White House who served eight American presidents over three decades and it plays as a 'greatest hits' of the civil rights movement, along with whatever else they decided to throw in, like Vietnam, apartheid, and Lyndon B. Johnson on the can. (Actually, Lyndon B. Johnson on the can was rather the highlight. ) It is heavyhanded, predictable, bland and so contrived in its sentimentality I sniggered at what should have been the moments of emotional impact. However, all was not lost, as I did have a nice little doze, which, as it was a morning screening, set me up quite nicely for the rest of the day. So there was that, but only that, alas.

Directed by Lee Daniels (Precious) in full-on melodramatic style, along with a few other styles, simply as and when - don't know; you tell me - it stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, a fictional character loosely based on Eugene Allen, who worked for the White House for 34 years before retiring as head butler in 1986. The story opens in Georgia, during Cecil's boyhood, with two slave bodies swinging from a tree, lynched. Next, it is Cecil in the cotton fields, his mother (Mariah Carey, can you believe) being dragged off and raped by the white master, his father stepping up to protest, and the white master shooting him in the head.

Slavery in America was grotesque, and remains a stain upon that nation in the same way any concentration camp remains a stain upon a nation, but I am sorry to say - and I truly am, actually - that, cinematically, when all this unfolded within the first few minutes I thought: 'Oh, that's what this film is. It's that kind of melodrama. We're doing it Roots-style. Ho-hum.'

Anyway, the white master's old mother - a trembling Vanessa Redgrave - decides to train Cecil up as a houseboy. Cecil proves an excellent servant. Having seen what happened to his father, he has learned the value of silence and unquestioning obedience. He later finds jobs in hotels, ending up, some years later, at a swish one in Washington. By this time, he is married to Gloria, as played by Oprah Winfrey (can you believe, although she does have a certain star quality), and they have two sons. He is offered the job at the White House and when he tells the family, the older son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who is sitting at the kitchen table reading a book (deep! …

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