Chief of Staff: We have no tolerance for politics in the White House.
Let’s get something out of the way immediately; LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER is not about a butler who works for the Oscar-nominated director, Lee Daniels. In fact, this film was originally titled “The Butler”, but after being sued by Warner Bros., who own the rights to a 1916 short of the same name, the producers were forced to change the film’s title; hence adding the “Lee Daniels’” bit. Daniels, who previously directed PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL “PUSH” BY SAPPHIRE (another film that had its title changed due to a dispute), and last year’s THE PAPERBOY, is shooting again for Oscar glory here. Unfortunately for Daniels, that isn’t going to happen. Yes, THE BUTLER is a good film, but it often feels as though it is trying too hard, which stops it from being a great one.
The film follows Cecil Gains (Forest Whitaker) on his journey from picking cotton as a child in 1926, to being a butler in the White House for eight presidential terms, serving presidents such as John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) and Richard Nixon (John Cusack). Whitaker gives a solid performance as Cecil, a man who hopes for change, but listens to the advice given to him at the beginning of the film: not to get involved. Some of Whitaker’s strongest scenes are those in which he says nothing at all; he shows beautiful restraint when witnessing events that are extremely upsetting but, given his position, that he can say nothing about. Though Whitaker is great, the strongest performance in this film, with over a dozen well known actors, comes from Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey, who has not appeared on the silver screen since 1998, gives her all as Cecil’s chain-smoking, alcoholic, wife, Gloria. Winfrey is at her absolute best during a scene in which her son (David Oyelowo), whom she has not seen in many years and has since joined the Black Panther movement, returns home for a very heated dinner. In this scene, Winfrey’s Gloria is delighted to have her son home for dinner, but viciously turns on him when he attacks his father. Winfrey’s resolve is fiercely intense.
With an ensemble this large, there are a number of performances of note, from those portraying presidents and first ladies, to the wait staff themselves. Unfortunately, most of the actors in these roles do not get enough screen time, or are strangely miscast, so we are left with a dozen or so caricatures instead of any major development. All the same, these actors do the best they can in their short time on screen. Standouts include Marsden, who master’s JFK’s accent, and Jane Fonda, who is made to look identical to Nancy Reagan. Speaking of which, the makeup in the film, as designed by Debra Densen, is absolutely fantastic. Both Whitaker and Winfrey appear to age naturally with each new presidential term. This is perhaps best exemplified during the final act, in 2008, when their characters begin to near the end of their lives.
In order for the film to fully do justice to the history of the American civil rights movement, it would need to be at least an hour longer, which would allow for many of its ideas to be much better developed. Ideally, the film should have been produced as a miniseries. Without more time for the themes to fully materialize, the film comes off at times as a little too left wing. I would usually not take issue with this but Daniels is rather obvious about painting the Democratic presidents in a much better light than he does the Republicans. The whole thing ends around the time current President, Barack Obama, is elected on that momentous night in 2008. This incredible moment in history suddenly feels forced and tacked on to the end of this film, designed specifically to make the audience cry over how far black Americans have truly come. Now I, like many others, enjoy a good cry at the movies, but I prefer to cry on my own rather than being blatantly told to do so. With a tad more time taken and tad more trust in the viewer, LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER, might have actually gotten to that emotional place without having to try as hard as it does to get there.
How many sheep would you give Lee Daniels’ The Butler?