Directed by Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy), The Butler is a historical drama loosely based on the real life story of Eugene Allen, a long-serving African-American White House butler. Forest Whitaker stars as Cecil Gaines, a former cotton plantation worker in the Deep South whose life is transformed when a sympathetic matriarch, Annabeth Westfall (Redgrave), trains him as a house servant.
Following a brief stint at an upmarket hotel, Cecil subsequently finds himself working for American presidents over three decades, including Eisenhower (Williams), JFK (Marsden), Lyndon B Johnson (Schreiber), Nixon (Cusack) and Reagan (Rickman - Fonda plays wife Nancy).
Meanwhile, Cecil finds it hard to maintain a healthy relationship with his wilful son, Louis (Oyelowo), who joins the Freedom Riders and, ultimately, the Black Panthers.
In a separate subplot, Cecil’s commitment to work takes its toll on his resentful and lonely wife Gloria (Winfrey) who struggles with alcoholism and infidelity.
Whitaker delivers a likeable and dignified performance, which will no doubt see him in contention for Best Actor at the Oscars. Oprah’s superb supporting role should also see her being shortlisted for an Academy Award. She keeps the movie dramatically vibrant, while engaging with the audience every step of the way. Her return after a 15-year absence from the silver screen was definitely worth the wait.
Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz give fine performances as Cecil’s co-workers at the White House, while Terrence Howard sparks interest as a numbers-runner and layabout neighbour. However, the various cameos throughout the film feel distracting and at times comical, most notably Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan and a make-up-free Mariah Carey.
The script provides a powerful insight into racial politics with heart-rending sequences, in particular Cecil’s reaction when Barack Obama wins the 2008 election. However, the whistle-stop depiction of the decades - spanning from the 1950s to the present day - makes it difficult to separate the different themes running through the film. For the most part, Daniels’ sprawling approach to storytelling feels like a crash-course in US political history.
It may be over-ambitious and lack some polish, but The Butler still has just enough heart to get my vote.