History as they say, it’s just one thing after another.
Forest Whittaker plays “Cecil Gaines” butler to the White House during eight administrations, from Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman).
Growing up as a share-cropper’s son in the 1920’s, Cecil witnesses first hand the casual violence and indifference of the “white-man” towards the slaves under their control. Making a breakaway he eventually finds his calling, serving as politely and discreetly as possible, the very people reinforcing the laws and stereotypes of the time.
Eventually finding himself at the White House, he serves each president and first family with the same quiet efficiency, deference and “see and hear nothing” attitude that had previously served him so well.
Whilst his working life is quiet and well ordered, his home life supporting his two young boys and a wife who likes the occasional drink, is not so well organised. Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) proving again that acting is not just a sideline, is almost unrecognisable in her manner, speech and actions. Cecil’s sons grow up as the film progresses but both feature as counterpoints to Cecil’s curiously disengaged world view. One son signs up for Vietnam, the other agitates via the notorious Blank Panthers before becoming part of the solution.
There is no disputing the acting talent on display, Whittaker is solid and provides a quiet dignity to the character, with excellent support from Winfrey. The cameos from A-Listers representing the various presidents both helps and hinders in equal measure. The film presents almost a “Greatest Hits” of the events of the time. Cecil sitting with a blood soaked Jackie Kennedy one moment, absorbing Malcolm X’s assassination and then tending a drunk maudlin Nixon the next. Curiously the film is uninvolving, jumping from one world event to another in a disjointed manner without ever providing a coherent whole.
Story-lines are signposted well in advance, the Vietnam segment an obvious example of using one family to represent a metaphor for all families that suffered. The violence and threat to characters is underplayed, whilst painting a true picture is all but impossible with a modern audience, the story feels air-brushed, almost “12 days a Slave” lite.
Bearing in mind the tumultuous period the film covers, there is almost a surfeit of “riches” to choose from, therefore the fault must lie with the director and writers. The film leaves the audience wondering who or what we should care about. Cecil’s regret is the most profound emotion we experience, a slow dawning realisation that his long service was perhaps in vain. He could and should have been more pro-active, his approach of quietly demonstrating how we are all equal was arguably insufficient, a laudable sentiment perhaps but does not make for a cheerful conclusion.
The film is loosely based on the true life White House Butler Eugene Allen, as with any “based on real events” loosely or otherwise, the veracity of the events portrayed is open to question. The film really just providing a loose canvas or framework on which to hang events of the time.
Whittaker and Winfrey do their best with a story and script that does them no favours. A disappointing race through American recent history, a period that deserves a better movie to document the seismic changes that reverberate to this day.
Overall a film unsure of the story being told and due to this lack of focus, is ultimately an unsatisfying watch.