It’s hard to watch The Butler and not fast-forward to the awards speeches that are no doubt set to follow. Everything from the subject to the cast to its director’s history screams for serious attention.
In many ways, it will be well deserved. Loosely based on the life of real US presidential servant Eugene Allen, The Butler stars the always-excellent Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, an eyewitness to 34 years of political history.
As he rises from cotton picker to the confidante of half a dozen presidents, ultimately to witness the first black man to be voted leader of the free world, his story is contrasted with that of the American Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of his children.
While one of his sons (Elijah Kelley’s Charlie) goes off to Vietnam, the other (David Oyelowo’s Louis) pops up in key moments in US black history, from the Freedom Rides of the early ’60s, through his friendship with Martin Luther King and the Black Panther movement. (In real life, Allen had one son, not involved in any of the above.)
Perhaps Daniels’ real strength is in his risky casting choices. In his world Mariah Carey doesn’t wear make-up, Lenny Kravitz can act, Jane Fonda is a Republican icon, Oprah Winfrey is a chain-smoking drunk and Cuba Gooding Jr. is once again in an Oscar-hopeful movie.
Yet somehow it all works, The Butler serving up major talent in relatively small roles – the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, Robin Williams, John Cusack and Alan Rickman also flit through – keeping up the quality in passing moments.
Then there’s Whitaker, steadfast, still, understated, commanding your attention, managing to be presidential himself in an ostensibly subservient role.
It may skip so quickly through historic events that it can feel rushed and flimsy, but excellent performances elevate it to serious Oscar contender.