Based on a true story, Lee Daniels’ latest film focuses on Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker), a man who served eight Presidents during his time as a butler in the White House, as the civil Rights movement unfolded around them.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler – the director’s name apparently inserted for copyright reasons – was inspired by an article in The Washington Post; a story about Eugene Allen, a man who worked in the White House for more than three decades. This is an interesting premise for a film, but the focus of Danny Strong’s screenplay is unclear.
Forrest Whitaker does a great job as Cecil Gaines. His story should be the heart of the film, and he does a beautiful job of having the audience on his side. He is gentle and kind, but is almost painfully aware of his place in society and history. Oprah Winfrey does what she can as Cecil’s wife Gloria and, while she is often great, she is let down by the script and her character being underdeveloped.
The rest of the film is filled with famous faces; Alex Pettyfer as slave owner Thomas Westfall, Vanessa Redgrave as Annabeth Westfall, Robin Williams as President Eisenhower, John Cusack as President Nixon, James Marsden as JFK and Liev Schreiber as President Johnson. Each actor is passable in their fleeting role, but as far as Presidents go, the standout is Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Rickman not only nails the accent and Reagan’s quiet manner of speaking, but he also looks scarily like the former President. Scarily. Terrence Howard turns up as an abusive and alcoholic friend of the Gaines family, and David Oyelowo takes on the role of Cecil’s revolutionary son Louis. As well as this, Lee Daniels carries on his recent tradition of ‘stunt’ casting, with Mariah Carey playing Cecil’s mother and Lenny Kravitz as another butler, James.
I sort of feel sorry for screenwriter Danny Strong. His inspiration for Lee Daniels’ The Butler was obviously one that he felt would make a great story on screen, and to a degree it does, but the story drifts through history in a manner that makes the film feel rudderless. It is obvious that Strong was trying to tie Gaines’ personal and family experiences, and sometimes it works, but other times it feels forced, like the personal has been shoehorned in with the bigger picture for the sake of making a statement. Making Gaines’s son a man on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement also means that this story appears far more interesting than the one at the fore of the film. Perhaps Lee Daniels’ The Butler would have been better served if the story more closely resembled that of The Help, rather than Forrest Gump. There is a happy medium that should have been struck, but was sadly missed.
Lee Daniels’ direction does not help the situation either. While there are some interesting juxtapositions in the film – such as Louis and his friends refusing to leave the Whites only section of a restaurant, as his father seats the powerful in the White House – but many moments that should have been given a light touch, are hamfistedly handled, leaving the film feeling emotionally manipulative, oddly cold and all too historically convenient. The characters feel underdeveloped and thin, since the film feels much more focused on jamming in as many historical events as possible, rather than addressing the stories of the people who make the White House work. Also, for some reason, Whitaker and Winfrey end up sounding like Chef from South Park’s parents as they get older, which sucks any potential gravitas or emotion from the final moments of the film.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a great premise for a film, but sadly fails to form any kind of emotional connection with the story or the audience, other than blatantly trying to manipulate any sadness or guilt we, as a society, may have. Butler’s direction is heavy handed, his casting more than a little odd in places, and Strong’s screenplay races through history at a lickety speed. There are moments of greatness – such as Rickman’s performance – but these are too few and far between to make the film anything other than a mess.