In 1994, Robert Zemekis brought to the silver screen the extraordinary life of an extraordinary man, Forrest Gump. Audiences bore witness to mere snapshots of his life punctuated by historical events such as the Vietnam War and Watergate. In the end and utterly captivated, we were left to lament that this was but a work of glorious fiction. Perhaps simply inspired by the film or wishing to do what Zemekis couldn’t, provocative director Lee Daniels’ (‘Precious’) has created ‘The Butler’, “based on real events” of the tale of an African-American man who grew up as a slave only to one day become a much-beloved White House butler serving eight presidents over three decades.
In real life, his name was Eugene Allen. However, in Daniels’ world, he goes by Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker). Raised as a cotton picker, he soon graduates to house boy after the brutal murder of his father. Fearing for his own life as he gets older, Cecil moves on and finds employ at a hotel where he hones his skills. He eventually captures the eye of a White House recruiter and finds himself face-to-face with the world’s most powerful leaders. Deeply dedicated to his job, at home Cecil leaves his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and two sons Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley). Not liking the world he’s growing up in, Louis fights to change it by becoming a strong member of the civil rights movement - much to the dismay of his father, fracturing their relationship and jeopardising his job.
Featuring an all-star cast, the film features many near-unrecognisable players making cameos as former presidents, including Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Whitaker and Winfrey are electric together, and apart proving that their past brushes with Oscar were far from flukes - and more than likely will come around again this award season. Rounding out the cast is Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz as Cecil’s fellow butlers, as well as Terrance Howard and Jane Fonda.
Slightly contrived and melodramatic having undertaken severe artistic licence, the ideas, thoughts and goal is undeniable, and at the crux of this tale is a man who watched the world around him change while he was standing in the middle of its origin. The Butler goes from a slave to a man who not only witnesses a black man rise to leader of the free world but also contributed to that rise, all in a single lifetime. The word "extraordinary" falls short.