Complete A-Z list

Butler, The


Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr, Terrence Howard, David Oyelowo, Clarence Williams III, Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, Alan Rickman, John Cusack, James Marsden, Jane Fonda, Robin Williams, Liev Schreiber, Minka Kelly, Colman Domingo

Director: Lee Daniels

A grand tour of the black experience in America over a 50-year period, inevitably a film of snippets and rather heavily treated by director Daniels and his screenwriter Danny Strong.

The core of the film, though, is a fascinating one and based on a real-life character. Here it's jug-eared Oscar-winner Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, originally a boy slave on a cotton plantation who sees his mother (Mariah Carey, with absolutely nothing to do, not even a line) raped by the lame son (Pettyfer) of the owner (Redgrave), and his father (David Banner) shot for even offering a silent protest.

Taken into the plantation's mansion by a sympathetic Redgrave, the boy (Michael Rainey Jr) becomes a 'house nigger', learning how to serve table as well as clean boots and riding gear. Leaving as a teenager (Aml Ameen), he gets work at a big city hotel and, made redundant some years later (and now played by Whitaker), applies for a job as one of the six butlers at the White House.

The butlers are almost an unseen presence, as Gaines watches one president after another come and go; but the film also concentrates on his relationship with his two sons, the older of whom (Oyelowo) joins the Black Panthers, while the other (Elijah Kelley) enlists in the army. 'You're fightin' your country,' he tells his sibling. 'I'm fightin' for my country.'

A succession of well-known actors impersonate the many presidents: Williams' tenure as Eisenhower is mercifully brief, and Marsden looks more like Robert Kennedy than JFK, but Cusack and Rickman, both good, are more like Nixon and Reagan than you could imagine, catching the essentials of their characters.

In the central roles, Whitaker and Winfrey (as his alcoholic wife) perhaps inevitably seem too old for the Gaineses until they mellow into middle age, only becoming more rounded characters in the film's later stages. Probably almost impossible to relate such a sprawling story to complete satisfaction, but for all that the film remains a decent try with the occasional telling moment.

David Quinlan

USA 2013. UK Distributor: Entertainment. Technicolor.
132 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 12A.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 0, Swearing 1.

Review date: 09 Nov 2013