For your consideration: Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Forest Whitaker stars as Cecil Gaines, who for 34 years served as a butler in the White House. The film is loosely based on the real life of Eugene Allen, who I’m sure was a much more interesting man than the character Cecil Gaines. Lee Daniels’ The Butler tries to cover entirely too much in the 132 minute run time and lacks the impact the film should have conveyed.
We meet Cecil in the 1920’s working on a cotton plantation in the south, when the plantation owner takes his mother, (Mariah Carey) aside and rapes her. The father, (David Banner) comes to her defense and shoots the owner. His mother is then left mute from the brutality, and Cecil, seeing no future in his current state, makes his way toward DC with little more than the clothes on his back. Hungry and tired, he sees pastries in a storefront window of a hotel and breaks in to eat the food on display, but is caught by the owner and is hired on the spot. (This struck me as major creative license.)
While he is working in the hotel he becomes very good at being the consummate waiter and is hired as a White House butler during Dwight D Eisenhower’s (Robin Williams), administration. If you think I am rushing this story, wait until you see the film! It takes you through Kennedy, (James Marsden), Johnson, (Liev Schreiber), Nixon, (John Cusack), Reagan, (Alan Rickman), and a hint of Obama. Cecil’s observation and relationship with each President would make for some great story telling, but the film rushes through this, as well as trying to show us his private life where his demanding job has taken a toll on his wife Gina, (Oprah Winfrey).
Winfrey delivers a very convincing performance as the alcoholic wife who struggles with her husband’s constant absence and his lack of sharing any of his day-to-day encounters at the White House. Cecil’s two sons, Louis, (David Oyelowo), and younger son Charlie, (Elijah Kelley) differ greatly in their opinion of the country and their father’s job. This family dynamic covers everything from Louis joining the Black Panthers, to Charlie volunteering to fight in Vietnam.
What this film leaves you wanting more of is the interaction between Cecil and the various Presidents. It skims this enough to allow a great performance by Cusack as Nixon. However, a lot of the powerful messages attempting to be conveyed here regarding everything from the ‘60s civil rights movement, Kennedy assassination, Martin Luther King Jr.’s freedom marches, Vietnam, South African apartheid, and ending with the election of President Obama, are almost montage-like in their delivery. Yeah, it’s a lot to take in. This film would have been phenomenal as a made for TV mini series, but one feature-length film does not give this story line the development it deserves.
Rating – 3.5 stars