LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER
DIRECTED BY Lee Daniels
STARS Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey
It's impossible not to chortle during that notorious scene in 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told, when Christ (Max von Sydow) is hanging on the cross and up lumbers John Wayne as a Roman centurion, drawling, "Truly, this man was the son of God," with the same cadence as if he were back in a Western saloon ordering a desperado to drop his gunbelt and hightail it out of town. But stunt casting didn't begin with the sight of The Duke at the crucifixion, and it certainly won't end with the roster of all-stars who have been invited to play U.S. presidents in Lee Daniels' The Butler.
"A Butler Well Served by This Election," a 2008 Washington Post article written by Wil Haygood, recounted the story of Eugene Allen, a butler who worked at the White House through eight presidencies. Modifying this true-life tale, scripter Danny Strong (who won Emmys for writing and producing Game Change, the HBO film starring Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin) has opted to drop one of the presidents (Truman) for his fictionalized story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), whose civility, grace and common sense allow him to rise from the dangerous terrain of the cotton fields (where, as a small boy, he witnessed his father shot in the head by one of the landowners) to working indoors as a servant to white people. His professionalism ultimately lands him a gig at the White House, where he makes friends with his fellow staffers (nice to see Cuba Gooding Jr. finally landing another decent role after all this time) and impresses the various power players who over the years grace the Oval Office.
Cecil's a workaholic, which doesn't always bode well for his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), who's so lonely that she begins to eye a flirtatious neighbor (Terrence Howard). Even more turmoil takes place on the home front when the Gaines' oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo), coming of age in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, looks down on what he perceives to be his father's subservience to the white man and sprints in the opposite direction by attending marches and meetings. The rift between father and son continues to grow, reaching its breaking point when Louis dares to dismiss family favorite Sidney Poitier as an Uncle Tom.
The Butler is at its best in those moments when it's addressing how the different approaches of two men to racial inequality — one working from within, one from without — can be equally valid courses of action and might even complement each other. The rest of the time, the film is entertaining but awfully slender — a light look at heavy history. The Forrest Gump approach of hopscotching through 20th century America worked better in that fantastical film than in this ostensibly more serious effort. Louis gets to chat with Martin Luther King, attend a Malcolm X rally, participate in a lunch counter sit-in, join the Freedom Riders for a dangerous drive through the South and hang out with the Black Panthers; in short, he does everything except refuse to move to the back of the bus. Cecil more logically gets to play Gump by appearing in scenes with Kennedy, Nixon and others — only instead of being expertly injected into archival footage of the historical figures, Whitaker plays opposite movie stars cast as our commanders in chief. It's an unnecessary tactic that serves to lessen the importance of the film, as it's impossible to accept most of these A-listers in these roles. James Marsden plays JFK close enough to the vest that he's a harmless choice, and Liev Schreiber at least makes us laugh with his bulldog impersonation of LBJ. But it's a cheap, disposable parlor trick — a prez dispenser, as it were — casting Robin Williams as Eisenhower, Alan Rickman as Reagan and especially John Cusack as Nixon. Hiring unknowns for these roles would have been a more sound decision, one that would have better maintained the integrity of the film. Instead, their miscasting only rekindles those flickering images of John Wayne standing up there on Golgotha, decked out in Roman garb but clearly longing for that place where the deer and the antelope play.