Movie Review: 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' -- 3 stars
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Directed by Lee Daniels
Starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” has a lot stacked against it, including some unfortunate stunt-casting and the tired “Forrest Gump” witness-to-history conceit. But whatever Lee Daniels’ film lacks in refinements it more than makes up for with its genuine emotional currents and fine lead performances.
This portrait of White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is based on the real life Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents.
Set between the 1920s and the present, the film parallels Cecil’s experience in the halls of power with that of his son Louis (David Oyelowo), who spends his youth on the front lines of the Civil Rights struggle, taking part in freedom rides, participating in lunch counter sit-ins, marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and joining the Black Power movement.
As such, the movie encapsulates two primary strands of the 20th century African American experience, filtered through a difficult father-son relationship. Escaping a traumatic childhood in the South, Cecil wants his family to conform to his vision of the American dream. Louis, on the other hand, has discovered a noble cause worth fighting and dying for. The two clash for years.
“The Butler” is carried by the decades-spanning Gaines household drama and what it microcosmically represents. Whitaker is a compelling presence, domineering and vulnerable, Oyelowo captures the younger generation’s anger and Oprah Winfrey disappears into matriarch Gloria, the pained, proud woman caught between her husband and son and her husband and his job.
Ironically, the movie loses a lot of its power during the White House scenes.
That’s partially because of the bizarre casting, including Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon and, in a thumb-in-the-eye to conservatives, Jane Fonda playing Nancy Reagan. Other decisions, such as Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson and James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, make more sense.
But these scenes are too superficial, too busy jumping from one administration to the next, to really sell the idea that Gaines changed presidential minds on race. In the end, the presidential stuff is a distraction from the movie’s real story, which shows us a father and a son struggling to connect against a monumental historical backdrop. It’s a movie about what it means to be a citizen, exploring the ways the personal intertwines with the political in a story that shapes history as it is so often understood, with one family’s struggles epitomizing a nation’s.
The Presidents on the big screen
‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler” spans some 30 years of White House history, including portrayals of presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Capturing so many dynamic figures and the White House each inhabited was a daunting proposition for filmmaker Lee Daniels.
“The idea of being accurate with history [was] terrifying,” says Daniels. “I knew I would nail the family part of it all, but going to the White House, I’ve never been to the White House, and I’m not a history buff. So, I just wanted to make sure that everything in that White House ... was accurate,” while capturing the “essence” of each president.
Here’s a look at the cinematic history of the five “Butler” presidents:
Played by: Robin Williams
Other famous actors who have played Ike include Robert Duvall, in the 1979 TV movie “Ike: The War Years” and Tom Selleck in the 2004 TV flick “Ike: Countdown to D-Day.” The late character actor Andrew Duggan played Eisenhower in both the miniseries “Backstairs at the White House” (1979) and the TV movie “J. Edgar Hoover” (1987).
JOHN F. KENNEDY
Played by: James Marsden
Marsden is one of three actors to portray Kennedy this year alone. Rob Lowe will play the president in the upcoming TV adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Kennedy” and Brett Stimely portrays him in “Parkland,” a drama about the eponymous Dallas hospital on that fateful November 1963 day. Famous past portraits include Greg Kinnear in the miniseries “The Kennedys” (2011) and Bruce Greenwood in the Cuban Missile Crisis drama “Thirteen Days” (2000).
Played by: Liev Schreiber
The vociferous Texan isn’t frequently portrayed in film and TV. But we’ve seen some accomplished actors give it a go. Donald Moffat played the president in “The Right Stuff” (1983) and Randy Quaid portrayed a young LBJ in the TV flick “LBJ: The Early Years” (1987). James Cromwell and Michael Gambon gave their takes on LBJ in the 2002 TV movies “RFK” and “Path to War.”
Played by: John Cusack
Cusack has tough competition when it comes to Nixon, who is in many ways the most deliciously Shakespearean of American heads-of-state. Frank Langella and Anthony Hopkins both earned Oscar nominations for “Frost/Nixon” (2008) and Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” (1995), respectively.
Played by: Alan Rickman
Of course, the most famous Reagan is Reagan himself, and there’s a long line of movies starring the younger president. “Knute Rockne, All American” is unquestionably the best-known of the bunch. Rickman is the most prestigious actor to take a crack at playing the president. James Brolin’s starring turn in the controversial 2003 television movie “The Reagans” is the most prominent prior portrayal.