To mark the 2008 Obama election, the Washington Post wrote about Eugene Allen, a black butler who had spent 34 years serving at the White House. Such a meeting of the generations provided such a perfect symbol of a changing America, it’s no surprise it inspired this fictionalised version. Yet somehow this broadly positive central idea works against the more complex themes underpinning ‘Precious’ director Lee Daniels’s potted tale.
We grasp the big idea from the off as elderly Forest Whitaker waits in the White House lobby for you-know-who to arrive. So when a flashback returns us to the unforgiving 1920s Deep South, the future pattern of the movie, playing Whitaker’s symbolic black experience against the historical milestones of successive presidencies (represented by high-profile cameos from Robin Williams, John Cusack, Alan Rickman and others), already seems set in stone.
As such, ‘The Butler’ proves a decent, significant, but slightly stodgy affair. Its dignified restraint stifles its anger. The devil is in the detail though, since Whitaker’s admirably controlled performance shows a man so worn down by presenting a docile front for his employers that he’s unable to grasp the worth of his college-educated son’s civil rights radicalism. There’s even appreciation for the fortitude of the housewife caught between the two men (Oprah Winfrey, alternately sassy and very affecting), typifying the film’s generosity of spirit towards the spectrum of black America.
The result isn’t as powerful as it should be. But it’s still cheering to see a film whose moral journey has little to do with the usual Hollywood chestnut of white middle-class consciousness-raising.