The Butler

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

I've been waiting to see Lee Daniels The Butler even longer than most. I did a taped audition for the film last year and although I'd only seen two scenes I could tell this film was going to be something special. The Butler's large and pretty amazing cast tell the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) an African American man who serves as a butler at the White House under 6 presidents over more than 30 years. 

We follow Cecil from a young boy working in a cotton field in the South, witnessing the destruction of his family which results in him being 'promoted' to working in the house, then as a young man finding his training as a 'house ni**er' makes him perfect hospitality material - he is trained up to work as a bar tender in a posh hotel for whites. 

The film tells a brief history of the civil rights movement over the decades, historically in terms of Presidents and politics but also personally, in terms of how it affects Gaines and his family. 
Cecil's son Louis (David Oyelowo) embodies the movement, going from counter sit one and freedom rides to the Black Panther movement and then into politics. (I auditioned for the part of his girlfriend Carol Hammie played by the absolutely foxy Yaya DaCosta. She definitely rocks an Afro way better than I ever could)

While the fight for civil rights was powerful on screen, with the sit-ins and brutal KKK scene watched in terrified silence by the audience, the real strength of The Butler lies in it's subtleties. In the change in Cecil from subservient butler to 'man of the house' in his own home; in the faces the butlers wear to get by in front of the whites vs the real them. In the story of his family - arguments with his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) about his long hours at the White House and the ongoing battle of wills between Cecil and Louis about his involvement in the movement. It really offers a slice of the personal, how this far off time and events I learned about in History class affected real people, real families. 

The film flies through the decades but feels authentic in each one, the wardrobe department were spot on. The dynamic performances were right across the board, the film is likely to garner a host of award nominations. I was especially happy to see not one but two Black Brits among this amazing cast, Aml Ameen as a young Cecil and David Oyelowo as his son Louis; both gave very strong performances. 

My only criticism would not be levelled at the film but at British cinemas. The Butler was the number 1 film in the US, yet the usual independent cinemas I visit weren't showing it and the chains were offering only one showing on a Saturday night, just one week after its British release. We eventually found a showing at 11pm and the screen was pretty much the smallest I've ever been to outside of a private viewing. I felt like was literally on top of the screen. And yet even at that time it was sold out, which shows there was demand. British cinema distributors, I'm side-eying you...

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