Film review: The Butler

Les Daniels’s historical drama is more radical than it’s Oscar-bait subject might suggest - and Oprah Winfrrey is wonderful, writes Tara Brady

The Butler
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Director: Lee Daniels
Cert: 12A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Forrest Whittaker, Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, James Marsden, John Cusack, Liev Schreiber, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda
Running Time: 2 hrs 12 mins

When White House maître d'hôtel Eugene Allen retired during the Reagan administration, he had served at Pennsylvania Avenue's most prestigious residence for 34 years and administered to the needs of seven presidents.

Lee Daniels's fictionalised account of Allen's life – here called Cecil Gaines and essayed by Forest Whitaker at his most Zen since Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai – has all the bells and whistles one could want from a big, fat Oscar-baiting picture.

Famous presidents and first ladies are deftly personified by famous actors: Robin Williams's Eisenhower frets over sending in the troops; Jane Fonda has perfected Nancy Reagan's walk. The central character's own racial struggles (one son goes to Vietnam, another joins the Black Panthers) are mirrored by the actions of Cecil's various employers. A problematic home life – Oprah Winfrey is wonderful as Cecil's alcoholic wife – adds sad, grace notes to a grand, orchestral work.

Right-wing cultural commentators may cite The Butler as prime liberal Hollyweird revisionism – as if reconsidering history from other angles is a bad thing – but this is no mere black Forrest Gump. Rather, the film offers a surprisingly gutsy, nuanced depiction of US race relations.

When the downstairs staff watch Liev Schreiber's impressively bull-headed LBJ on TV, Cecil's co-worker (Cuba Gooding Jr) is heard to harrumph: "Since when did he start calling us Negroes? That nigger uses the word 'nigger' more than I do." Just at the moment Alan Rickman's Ronald Reagan says he will veto Congressional plans to boycott Apartheid South Africa, he wonders aloud about "this whole civil rights issue. I sometimes feel I'm on the wrong side of it."

Back at the Gaines household, a family discussion about Sidney Poitier descends into name-calling and face-slapping: “You owe everything to that ‘house nigger’ hisses Oprah at her lately politicised son and his afro-ed girlfriend; “Now take this low-class bitch out of my house.” Yes ma’am.

The Butler is shot against tight interiors and never overplayed; this is rather more subtle than Daniels's Precious, let alone the industrial- strength melodrama of The Paperboy. There's a fine overview of the fractured morality Cecil notes when he says: "America has always turned a blind eye to what it does to its own".

Bring the kids.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic