Movie Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler
STARRING (In Relative Order of Screentime): Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr, Lenny Kravitz, Yaya Alifa, Terrence Howard, Elijah Kelly, John Cusack, Liev SchreJamiber, James Marsden, Alan Rickman, Robin Williams, Nelsan Ellis, Clarence Williams III, Jesse Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Fonda, Alex Pettyfer, Minka Kelly, David Banner, Mariah Carey
WRITTEN BY: Danny Strong
DIRECTED BY: Lee Daniels
First off, let me express my disdain for having to type “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”. As if no two films have ever shared a title before in the history of cinema. Warner Bros actually had the balls to argue that audiences would be confused with a silent film from 90 years ago. Because, apparently, we are all idiots. That being said, Lee Daniels assembled a solid cast here, but we’ll get to that later.
This is the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), whose life is based on the true story of a man who served in the White House from Truman through Reagan. In this movie, we start at Eisenhower (Robin Williams, who looks more like Truman). The movie begins with Cecil growing up as a sharecropper, and watching his mother (Mariah Carey) get sexually assaulted by his white boss (Alex Pettyfer), who then kills his father (David Banner). The white boss’s grandmother (Vanessa Redgrave) takes pity on the boy, and makes him a ‘House Nigger’ (yes, I typed it). Cecil learns the importance of being in a room, but the room feeling like he wasn’t in it. Cecil makes off for a life of his own, working in the service industry, until the White House notices and takes him on board.
Cecil has a wife (Oprah Winfrey) and two kids. Louis (David Oyelowo) is interested in the civil rights movement, and his younger brother Charlie is initially too young to care (but grows up to be played by Elijah Kelly later). Cecil also has a shady neighbor (Terrence Howard at his slimiest). Cecil has two butler friends in the white house (Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz) also. The movie shows us how Cecil exists over the years, through the civil rights movement, and how his son Louis also reacts to the civil rights movement. Cecil works for Eisenhower, Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Schrieber), Nixon (John Cusack), and Reagan (Alan Rickman). I suppose Lee Daniels is hoping the audience forgets about Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, and doesn’t wonder why he didn’t offer someone the chance to cameo in those roles.
The movie is only interesting for two reasons. The first being the acting. Oprah Winfrey, in particular, is given a good role, filled with alcoholism and depression. Forest Whitaker does good in a non-showy, very quiet role. His few scenes where he’s allowed an outburst, or an emotion, are that much more powerful because he’s so quiet throughout most of the movie. David Oyelowo is great as Louis, whose character has the clearest arc. He starts out wanting to do good, gets confused along the way, and turns his life around to do great things again. Also, Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz are solid in supporting roles.
The second would be the storyline of Louis. If Louis didn’t exist, I would have fallen asleep. Cecil’s life isn’t interesting enough without Louis around to mirror his existence. Louis is on the forefront of the civil rights movement, and through his experiences we get to see the worst in people. Through Cecil, we get to see sketchy acting performances from James Marsden and Alan Rickman, neither who are convincing as their historical counterparts, and a horrible miscasting of John Cusack as Richard Nixon. Never has an actor been so miscast in a part. Keanu Reeves might have been a more appropriate casting choice. I didn’t realize he was Nixon until the movie told us he was, and even then I was baffled. Liev Schrieber does a good job playing Johnson, and I really believed Williams was Truman, until I found out he was playing Eisenhower.
As far as the other actors? Mariah Carey has no dialogue. She’s in maybe 60 seconds of screentime, and doesn’t speak. Jane Fonda has one scene. Vanessa Redgrave has three scenes, and then she’s gone after the first few minutes of the movie. Minka Kelly has one or two lines. Alex Pettyfer is done as quickly as Vanessa Redgrave. Jesse Williams and Nelsan Ellis are in one scene each. Basically, this film has a ton of cameos. If you think any of these actors contributes to the story, or you were excited at the prospect of seeing them do some fine acting, none of them have anything really to do in the film. You wouldn’t know it though, as Fonda and Redgrave are both on the poster. So is Clarence Williams III, who is in the film for also roughly 3 minutes, and never appears again.
As a historical film, it isn’t terrible. But it’s not a work of art that will be remembered for years. There’s a reason this is releasing in August, way ahead of the Oscar season. It isn’t Oscar bait. It won’t win any awards. At best, a campaign for Oprah might yield the lone nomination for Supporting Actress. I can’t see even Whitaker getting a nomination. Not after his much more superior performance in The Last King of Scotland. Lee Daniels made The Butler a good film, just not a great one.
FINAL GRADE: B
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