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Hearts in the right place: Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in “The Butler”

The Butler has been a box office hit in the US and it's not difficult to see why. Based loosely on the story of a black White House butler who served eight presidents, it manages to be all things to all Americans: it celebrates the civil rights movement, the presidency, the power of collective activism as well as quiet individual resolve, the injustice of the past and the possibility of progress. While recounting some of the horrors of history it manages too to emerge patriotic. This is some balancing act, and one which America, with its battered but still intact sense of its own goodness, is culturally uniquely capable of.

It also has those other all too familiar traits for which Hollywood is reviled: it's simplistic, manipulative and sentimental. But I'll take that any day over the knowingness and postmodern irony which passes so often for complexity and sophistication. If a thing's heart is in the right place, I can easily forgive being nudged in the right emotional direction.

Not that you need much nudging here. Cecil Gaines starts life by witnessing the rape of his mother and the murder of his father by the white owners of the cotton plantation on which they toil. Growing up in hotel service and ending up in Washington, he's talent-spotted for a position at the Eisenhower White House. Eight presidents come and go before Cecil (played by the reliable Forest Whitaker) eventually retires, having become something of a below-stairs legend. But there are no Downton-type fixations here — much of the story takes place outside, centring mostly around Cecil's marriage to Gloria (an impressive Oprah Winfrey) and his volatile relationship with his activist son Louis (David Oyelowo), who takes part in the earliest civil rights protests before graduating to the Black Panthers.

This father-son conflict provides the central drama and question at the heart of the movie: is Louis right to see his father as some kind of compliant Uncle Tom? Or is Cecil in his own way advancing the position of black people by exerting bits and pieces of informal influence here and there, and by sheer hard work and reliability subverting the white stereotype of black people, as is pointed out here in one scene by Martin Luther King himself? The film ends up having its cake and eating it on this score, but the journey along the way is nevertheless thoroughly absorbing and, despite the familiarity of so many of the events depicted, manages to be moving. However many times one sees it re-created, it is still shocking to see the treatment of early civil rights activists attempting to follow Gandhi's  teachings of the power of non-violent protest, even when having scalding coffee thrown in their faces in the whites-only section of a diner. And it really is worth remembering that however familiar the story may be to older generations, there will be many a multiplex audience which will be coming to this new.

With so much to fit into just over two hours, there is undoubtedly a somewhat superficial Greatest Moments approach to history here; in other circumstances, The Butler could have made a great six-part TV series. Even so, there's pleasure to be had in seeing some of Hollywood's famous faces doing their best at imitating presidents good, bad and indifferent: John Cusack makes an execrable Nixon, Robin Williams a homely Eisenhower, and Alan Rickman a somewhat ambiguous Reagan. Only Jane Fonda, on screen for only a matter of minutes as Nancy Reagan, absolutely nails it both in manner and physicality. If there were an Oscar for cameos, she'd be a shoo-in. As it is, I fully expect to see some of the other names here filling up nomination papers come January.

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