“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is neither as good as I hoped it would be nor as bad as I feared it might be. It’s definitely somewhere in the middle. What it does have is one terrific supporting performance and that performance is from Oprah Winfrey. More about her later.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is directed by Daniels and written by Danny Strong. The film is inspired by the 2008 “Washington Post” article by Wil Haygood about Eugene Allen, the White House butler who served during the Eisenhower administration through the Reagan years.
I went to the movie expecting it to be about the real White House butler, (albeit under a different name). It turns out that there is a world of difference between “inspired by” and “based on.” In this case, the movie and we are the poorer for the difference.
This butler, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), had a horrific childhood in the cotton fields of Georgia before moving into his employer’s home, Mrs. Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave), to serve on her house staff. From there he had a series of jobs in different cities until he landed in DC and ultimately the White House. In DC, with his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), Cecil raises two sons.
Unfortunately, it’s during the White House years that the movie shifts much of its focus from Gaines to his oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo). With Louis’ involvement featured, we learn about the actions of the Freedom Riders, witness the Woolworth’s sit-in, experience the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and watch Black Power come to life. But we see these events through Louis’ eyes, not Cecil’s. In fact, Louis is featured so prominently, it begins to feel as if it’s his movie.
The film’s treatment of the presidents under whom Gaines served too often plays into the stereotypes by which they’ve come to be known. While the scenes of LBJ (Liev Schreiber) with his beagle are funny, they seem out-of-place. And the exchanges with Richard Nixon (John Cusak), both in the Eisenhower years and then as President, feel unnecessarily cruel… and are they even true? The interactions with Eisenhower (Robin Williams) and Kennedy (James Marsden) seem the most genuine and least caricaturist in nature. Frankly, I’m not sure what to make of the Reagan years (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda). I can’t put my finger on it, but something about these scenes just doesn’t work. And as a side note, much is made of Cecil trying to get equal pay for the African-American staff. In reality, a recent interview with a long-time White House staffer seems to credit another African-American with that accomplishment. Presidents Ford and Carter are completely left out of the film. I, for one, would love to know what it was like to be so close to history-in-the-making with the resignation of one President and a new one so quickly taking his place. Also, I’m very curious as to what was it like to work for a Southern president from the very state in which the fictional butler was from, Georgia (in reality the real butler was from Virginia and never spent a day in the cotton fields).
The film’s best and most genuine scenes are with Cecil and Gloria as a couple and with their circle of friends (including portrayals by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terrence Howard)…some from the White House staff and some from the neighborhood. It’s a look at normal middle-class African-American life that movies don’t often show and it feels very real.
This brings us to the film’s two name stars—Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey. Sadly, for much of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” Whitaker too often is an onlooker in his own film. It’s in the scenes with Winfrey that he seems to come alive. Winfrey, however, is simply amazing. From the moment she enters the film, you completely forget that she is “Oprah.” She gives the movie its humanity…its heart…and her performance alone is worth the price of admission, she is that good.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” can’t really decide what it wants to be. Is it a story about a man’s life under extraordinary circumstances or is it more of a documentary? Because of its indecision it ultimately does neither very well, and that is a real shame.