“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” Movie Review

     Odd casting choices seen throughout “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” are a definite distraction as a story unfolds which deserved a more polished production an experienced director likely would’ve provided.  The director, Lee Daniels, arrived on the scene with 2009’s “Precious”, a gripping character study of a young African-American female’s life in the projects.  “Precious” was straightforward and focused on a short timeline and two central characters, which allowed Daniels a limited scope and meaningful scenes for his actors, two of which received Oscar nominations.  Awards buzz is likely still in the cards for “The Butler” and it’s two stars, Forrest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, but I can’t help to believe the overall impact of this material and it’s clear importance left a lot to be desired.  “The Butler” may be a case of a missed opportunity.

     When we first meet Cecil Gaines, he’s a young boy working with his family in cotton fields somewhere in the South in 1926.  Though over 60 years post slavery, it doesn’t appear much had changed as Cecil witnesses the cold blooded murder of his father just for looking the wrong way at his white employer.  This scene was just one of many that constantly reminded me of our country’s sick history.  You need look no further than the events which led to the 60’s Civil Rights movement to understand why our society is the way it is today.  Many of the scenes depicted in “The Butler” are true events and knowing this left me with even more of a reminder as to how despicable the human race can be.

     Cecil is taught young how to properly serve and wait on white people within their homes and he is able to parlay this experience into job at a high end hotel in Washington D.C. as a young adult.  It’s at this point Forrest Whitaker takes over as Cecil for the two previous younger actors.  This turns out to be Daniels’ first mistake.  With Whitaker being 52 years old, he should’ve left these early scenes to the perfectly capable Aml Ameen who played Cecil during his late teen years.  Suspension of disbelief I know, but a hair piece and makeup doesn’t exactly shave 30 years away from Whitaker. 

     A chance meeting while serving a politician leads to Cecil being hired to the butler staff of the White House, leading to his serving during the terms of eight U.S. Presidents.  Through it’s 126 minute running time, Daniels insists on scenes which incorporate Cecil with six of those Presidents which opens the door for some of the oddest cameos I’ve ever seen in a film.  Starting with Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, they keep coming and are more distracting each time as I found myself wondering who would play the next President.  That was answered in a later scene where John Cusack walks into the White House kitchen and proclaims himself as none other than Vice President Richard Nixon!  Seriously, I could’ve been cast in that role!  He’s just John Cusack with a deeper voice.  The filmmakers didn’t even see fit to try and mimic Nixon’s receded hair line with some type of makeup effect.

     This goes on several times more with an appropriately cast James Marsden as John F. Kennedy and concludes with perhaps the strangest of all when Alan Rickman shows up as Ronald Reagan.  Thats right.  Hans Gruber plays Ronald Reagan.  Compare these casting choices to the recent portrayal of Lincoln by Daniel Day Lewis.  When on screen, he exuded Lincoln in every way to the point we weren’t constantly reminded who was playing him which sadly is not the case here.  Not helping matters is a strange trend in “go to” black actors as nearly the entire front line cast of “Red Tails” is featured prominently with Cuba Gooding Jr. appearing as the White House lead butler, Terrance Howard as Cecil’s neighbor Howard, and David Oyelowo as Cecil’s oldest son, Louis.  A newcomer or two in these roles would’ve put more focus on the story and less on who played these characters.

     With Cecil maintaining an understanding of the reality of his role in society at the time, his son Louis chooses to fight and becomes an activist and leader in the 60’s Civil Rights movement.  This puts the family at odds throughout the film and leads to some of the best sequences in the story.  Shortly after going away to college in the south, Louis is part of a group that challenges the barriers of race by sitting in the white only section of a diner.  When they refuse to leave, the town’s white people decide to physically torture them, belittle them, and eventually beat them.  When the police arrive, it is deemed Louis’ group has to go to jail and Daniels’ smartly concludes the scene with actual news footage from this true event.  A later similar situation on a bus packs an even bigger emotional punch when the film needs it most.

     Essentially, the White House scenes have no real significance in the story.  Daniels’ seems to place Cecil into the Oval Office as the various Presidents are discussing issues ranging from Vietnam to Apartheid, but since his role is one of a servant, he neither shows any emotion or adds anything to the proceedings.  He’s simply there in a way similar to “Forrest Gump” and has no impact what so ever.  The power of this story is really the sometimes tumultuous relationship with his wife, Gloria (Winfrey), and the constant difference in opinion with Louis.  For her part, Winfrey is outstanding in her role and should be considered as a true threat in the Supporting Actress categories early next year.  No doubt, Whitaker deserves the same credit as he anchors this film with all the skill and professionalism of a truly gifted actor.  For a film like this to work, Cecil’s character must show a tremendous amount of heart and humanity, which Whitaker is able to achieve in every scene.

     The casting choices are indeed bizarre at times and the film seems to gloss over key events due to time restrictions (When JFK is shot and killed, virtually no mourning occurs before we’re seeing Liev Schreiber portray Lyndon Johnson, barking orders while sitting on the toilet), but Daniels has turned in a solid effort nonetheless.  “The Butler” is a powerful and important film that could’ve been better, but it still achieves what it sets out to do.  Tell the story of a very special man in our history who otherwise may have been ignored.  No lesson in the film is more telling of how little was accomplished from the 60s to the 80s than the scene in which Cecil confronts his boss during the Reagan Administration to reveal he and the other black butlers are STILL being compensated 40 percent less than the white butlers.  Put that on the long list of reasons our society still struggles today.  Yes, as the story points out, we elected a black President in 2008, yet my view of this country still shows me too many people who refuse to realize we are all in this together.  GRADE: B