The early controversy that arose from Lee Daniel’s The Butler was as amusingly odd and unique as the film itself. Word got around that Jane Fonda had been cast as Nancy Reagan. Then there were the non-newsworthy reports that the original title of The Butler had to be altered, due to a copyright loophole–not exactly the most interesting film gossip.
I miss the days when I’d read how Kevin Costner showed up at Kawaihae Harbor on the Big Island and found one of his Waterworld sets had sunk. In any case, Daniel’s most ambitious film, yet again, demonstrates his fearless casting choices and unwillingness to embrace subtlety. While flawed and overstuffed, his Butler is entertaining from start to finish.
A prologue introduces us to Cecil Gaines, the son of slaves working on a plantation. Cecil witnesses his mother being taken into a shed by a cruel, white plantation authority, and what occurs isn’t clear to him. It is to Cecil’s father, who watches helplessly as his wife is casually taken from him. This is powerful stuff, hurtful to watch and a gripping introduction to the protagonist.
But Daniels almost ruins it with his anything-goes pick of performers in unlikely roles. We’re still getting acclimated to the story when we have to accept Mariah Carey as Cecil’s Mother, Magic Mike star Alex Pettyfer as her abuser and Vanessa Redgrave as the head of the plantation household. It’s a bit much to swallow at first, though I grew to enjoy the revolving door of celebrity cameos that follow.
Forrest Whitaker plays Cecil as an adult, whose traumatic childhood was followed by training and random connections that led to a long held position as a White House butler. Whitaker makes Cecil a fascinating character, a portrait of gruff persistence and African-American guilt over being socially inactive. While Cecil serves the most powerful men in the world, his son Louis gradually becomes a Black Panther, fighting against the casual attitudes towards racism that Cecil tolerates at his occupation.
The contrast of the life of a Freedom Rider vs. a “house negro” is well explored and provocative, even as the screenplay cuts corners with character development and history. Scenes depicting Louis’ “training” to endure racist attacks and the resulting assaults are harrowing. Yet, for all the references to Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they remain off camera. There’s also a subplot involving Terrence Howard’s unsavory character that appears severely edited before it reached a resolution.
Of the numerous celebrities who appear as famous historical figures, John Cusack as Nixon, James Marsden as JFK, Minka Kelley as Caroline Kennedy and Liev Schreiber as LBJ are terrific and, yes, Fonda’s Mrs. Reagan is eerily spot-on. Robin Williams plays Eisenhower for only a few minutes, while Alan Rickman is all wrong as Ronald Reagan. Only his elaborate make-up leaves an impression.
In one of her rare appearances on film, Oprah Winfrey has been cast as Cecil’s long-suffering wife. Her performance is fine but I couldn’t forget who I was watching. She’s a distraction, but it’s not her fault entirely, as her acting isn’t a problem. Being the most famous woman on the planet makes it hard to lose yourself to her character. When she has a scene with Whitaker in bed, all I could think was, does Steadman know?
Like Oliver Stone’s W., this is confrontational, politically charged, full of amazing performances and contains outstanding scenes. But it’s also conventional in its narrative and not fully fleshed out. More controversy awaits it, as multiple sequence near the film’s end are so obviously PSA’s for President Barack Obama. Debate will ensue but, more importantly, the movie works, even with its shortcomings.
Score: *** (1-5 Star Score)