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The President’s man

OUT NOW! THE BUTLER attempts to do a survey of history through a very personal narrative but comes up short.

Eve Lucas on “The Butler”

With social networks, reality TV and mixed-format productions such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, Episodes and Being John Malkovich, the autobiography-based biopic is surely well past its sell-by date. So biopics such as The Butler, which addresses the synthesis of private and public, needs to create the kind of empathy with its subject that holds up under the scrutiny of a reality-critical audience. One way of achieving this is to set up the viewer as an ideally placed observer: an approach set out decades ago by Russian director and theoretician Vesvolod Pudovkin, who used the camera to create a single, invisible perspective: ours.

Based on the autobiography of Eugene Allen, the subject of this intense focus in The Butler is Cecil Gaines, a young African American “house nigger” who left the racist South and came to Washington to be spotted by a White House staffer and taken on as butler – serving under eight presidents from Truman to Reagan. Played with impeccable discretion by Forest Whitaker, Gaines serves with a dedication perceived by elder son and nascent civil rights activist Louis (Oyelowo) as Uncle Tom servility, whilst wife Gloria (a restrained Winfrey) keeps the home fires burning by splashing gin on the embers.

There are a couple of clever scenes, such as one that crosscuts from Cecil’s proud background presence at a White House dinner to the violence of a sit-in as Louis protests segregation in a southern bar. But like the intrusive cameo use of celebrity actors (Fonda, Cusack, Williams, Redgrave) this kind of editing breaks the flow of a film that’s meant to be about an intimacy that became possible, against all odds, in the cross-pollination of private and professional. More jarringly, the attempt to play fly on several Civil Rights walls and stay personal proves quite a credibility stretch: US presidents using Cecil as a sounding board whilst Martin Luther King gives Louis the lowdown on subservience as subversion in a motel room? That’s some kind of Forrest Gumpy set up – minus the irony.

The Butler | Directed by Lee Daniels (USA 2013) with Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo. Starts October 10