It’s a good thing the heart of Lee Daniels’ The Butler (yes, that’s what it’s called) is Forest Whitaker, because the movie has a great story to tell but keeps getting in its own way. The relentless barrage of huge-star cameo appearances, corny dialogue and curiously choppy storytelling—you’ll find Dr. Martin Luther King but not Malcolm X on screen—nearly undermines a powerful story of civil rights in the United States as seen through the eyes of one man, Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), a White House butler for seven administrations.
Of course, The Butler does have Whitaker, who grounds the story with his unique combination of power and humility. Whitaker is never flashy (except as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, maybe), and he puts his sort of everyman quality to excellent use here.
From the beginning, director Daniels (Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire; absurd titles are his thing, I guess) lets the audience know this story won’t be cuddly; one of the first images to appear on screen is two black men, lynched, hanging from a tree. It’s gruesome. It’s effective.
We flash forward to see Cecil waiting in the Barack Obama White House to meet the president. We then flash back to Cecil’s childhood (with a child actor) in the deep South. In the space of about five minutes, Cecil’s mother is raped by a white man and his father shot and killed by the same man.
It’s here that the first piece of stunt casting occurs; Cecil’s mother is Mariah Carey, who couldn’t look more out of place than a cotton farm. She soon fades into the background, though, as Cecil is trained to work in the house by Vanessa Redgrave.
As a teenager, Cecil (played by Aml Ameen) leaves the farm and heads north for work, but is eventually forced to break into a restaurant to avoid starving. He’s given refuge and a job by Maynard (Clarence Williams III, who’s in the movie far too little). When Maynard passes on a position in an upscale Washington, DC, hotel, he recommends Cecil, who becomes a favorite among the politicians. It’s then that Cecil (now played by Whitaker) is approached by the White House, then occupied by Eisenhower, to serve as a butler.
The rest of the movie is a mess. It’s a glorious mess, though. For all the bad dialogue—try not to think of Bill Cosby when someone yells, “I brought you into this world and I’ll take you out”—the actors redeem it and manage to transcend some of the clunky things they have to say.
For example, Whitaker is excellent at conveying the pain caused him by the relationship with his oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who would rather fight racism head-on than take the measured approach that Cecil does. With each passing scene, we see Cecil becoming sadder, ever so subtly, as he and Louis drift apart.
Oprah Winfrey, whom one would think would be the queen of distracting casting, is quite good as Cecil’s long-suffering wife, Gloria. She, too, struggles with awkward pacing, as a subplot about her affair with a neighbor (Terrence Howard) comes and goes with all the finesse of a movie trying to cram 80 years of story into two hours and 26 minutes.
As for the presidents themselves, there’s Eisenhower (Robin Williams, awkward but quiet), Kennedy (James Marsden, surprisingly good), Johnson (Liev Schrieber, overdoing it), Nixon (John Cusack, laughably bad) and Reagan (Alan Rickman, whose Reagan is very Alan Rickmanesque). Ford and Carter get a pass.
Whitaker is given able support by Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. as other White House butlers, but he remains the center in this cinematic storm. The Butler has been uncharitably compared to Forrest Gump, but it’s much better; its story doesn’t trade on nostalgia to make baby boomers happy. In The Butler, the past is strewn with all the reality of life in the 20
LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER
Directed by Duh
With Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo
Regal Santa Fe Stadium 14