Eugene Allen‘s wife, Helene, died the day before the US elections which saw Barack Obama claim his place at the first Arican American President. Eugene and his wife had been married for 65 years and had long been planning the day when they would vote together, for Obama. Eugene himself had enjoyed a long association with the White House, having worked there as a butler for 34 years and served eight presidents. His story was reported in an article entitled “A Butler Well Served by This Election” in The Washington Post in 2008. The piece inspired Danny Strong’s screenplay for ‘The Butler’, in which Eugene is represented by the fictional Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker).
The film features a number of highly rated actors, drawn from both sides of the pond, from Oprah Winfrey to Robin Williams, Jane Fonda to Alan Rickman (they were my favourite Presidential couple, as Ronald and Nancy Reagan), Vanessa Redgrave to Lenny Kravitz. This varied cast is indicative of the wide scope of the film.
There is no doubt that this was a great idea for a movie, but for me the realisation somehow missed the mark. As it moves through the decades, the film attempts to chronicle the main events in the American human rights movement – mainly through the active involvement of the butler’s own son. This story is interleaved with those of the butler’s own family life and also the histories of the successive presidents. It is too tall an order, too much to cram in to one film in any meaningful way. As a result, I found the film just skimmed across the surface, never really getting to grips with the issues. It was like watching someone panning across a huge vista with a pair of binoculars, but never focussing in. No-one gives a bad performance, but no-one is especially memorable.
In my humble opinion, the film-makers could have taken some hints from Forrest Gump, whose run through modern history is far more engaging than that of The Butler.
‘Dead Poets Society‘ has been my favourite film for a long time. Watching it again hasn’t changed my mind. Sure, it’s sentimental and full of quotable soundbites, but its message is still important.
Mr John Keating, played by Robin Williams, encourages his young male students to think for themselves, achieve their full potential, seize the day (‘Carpe Diem‘). Using an imaginative mix of poetry, music and humour, Keating draws out even the most reluctant of his pupils. His methods are frowned upon by the school’s head and staff, who try to discourage John from developing free-thinking individuals. Nevertheless, his classes inspire the boys of the revived ‘Dead Poets Society’ to chase their dreams. But when Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) lands himself the lead role in a local production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, against the wishes of his overbearing father, Mr Keating’s liberal lessons are called in to question.
I would have liked to have been a teacher – English to ‘A’ level. That is because I would have liked to have been the kind of teacher portrayed by Robin Williams in the movie. Education is about so much more than pumping children full of facts – Dickens knew that when he wrote ‘Hard Times‘ way back in 1854. Somehow though, we don’t seem to have learned very much about what our young people need to know in order to make their own way in the world.
My guess is that most people who go into teaching do it with the intention of inspiring their pupils, touching their souls in some way. What a pity then, that these remarkable individuals have their talents reduced to pushing our kids through the system like sausages, churning out results which only have value if they can be measured and counted. Courage, kindness, creativity, humility, determination and may other important life qualities are not on the numbered scale.
Robin Williams has taken his own life. A cruel irony for a funny man. For me, it’s not Mrs Doubtfire or Aladdin’s genie which linger in my mind; it’s the inspirational Mr John Keating, teacher extraordinaire.