Lee Daniels’ The Butler

The Butler poster - Lee Daniels' The ButlerLD’s The Butler is one of those movies that shames you into thinking it’s better than it is because it features an all-star cast and tackles some poignant themes relating to politics, race relations and family. So please forgive me when I say (or write), it’s just okay. I liked the message way more than the movie, inspired by the story of a real former White House butler named Eugene Allen who was profiled in the Washington Post back in 2008.

On film, the story traces the life of a humble and quiet man named Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) as he bears witness to everything from extreme brutality and prejudice on a Southern cotton plantation in the 1920s, to the historic election of Barack Obama in 2008. For nearly 30 of those years, Cecil works as a butler at the White House, serving seven presidential administrations. That means he’s a fly on the wall at 1600 Penn during some of the most tumultuous times in our nation’s modern history: The Little Rock Nine, the Freedom Riders, the assassinations of MLK and JFK, Vietnam, Watergate… the list really does go on and on.

When he’s not at the White House, Cecil is at home with his loving but lonely, alcoholic wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and their two sons, the increasingly rebellious Louis (David Oyelowo) and the sweet, funny and charming Charlie (Elijah Kelley). When Louis becomes extremely active in the civil rights movement, he and Cecil have a falling out. Theirs is a complicated and strained relationship that provides the bulk of the movie’s drama, and heart.

As I said, I admire the film’s efforts to capture and relate an important part of our modern history.

But here’s the rub. Stunt casting. It’s a distraction… even more distracting than Forest Whitaker’s droopy eye. Or Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terence Howard sporting similar staches’.

It’s hard to stay in the moment when Oprah comes on screen as anyone other than Oprah. Or Robin Williams – as Dwight D. Eisenhower. Or John Cusack – as Richard Nixon. Or Liev Schreiber – as LBJ. Or James Marsden – as JFK. Or Jane Fonda – as Nancy Reagan! You get the picture. (note: I was even distracted by YaYa from cycle three of America’s Next Top Model as Louis’ militant girlfriend. But that one’s my fault, ‘cause I happened to work on ANTM3.)

The other big issue I had is that the characters didn’t all seem to age at the same pace over time. That was kind of weird.

So – bottom line: The Butler is certainly worth seeing, in much the same way that Lincoln was worth seeing. It’s good. But it could have been better.

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