Release Date: August 16, 2013
Director: Lee Daniels
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Film Pulse Score: 5/10
Lee Daniels’ film is inspired by the article “A Butler Well Served by This Election” written by Wil Haygood. The article looks at Eugene Allen, a man who has served as a butler at the White House for thirty-five years serving eight Presidents of the United States. This is very likely the only connection that the film shares with the real-life person it was inspired by. Like many films before it that carries the “inspired by a true story” moniker it leaves itself open for scrutiny as most viewers will no doubt wonder how much of this is true and how much was created by the filmmakers. Lee Daniels’ sweeping epic barely cuts the mustard.
It’s conceivable that perhaps Allen’s time in the White House was uneventful and wouldn’t have made for compelling viewing. However that would have been preferential to what ultimately amounts to a Foot Notes version of Civil Rights in the United States. For this viewer, the Presidential version of The Remains of the Day would have been more enjoyable. Lee Daniels’ The Butler is contrived and often heavy-handed in its theatrics. The film follows Cecil Gaines from his youth on a cotton plantation to his arrival at the White House through the election of Barack Obama. As the film progresses Cecil and his family are almost like Forrest Gump where they just happen to find themselves in the midst of historical events. Likely the hardest thing to swallow is how his son Louis not only happens to become a member of the Freedom Writers but also happens to be with Martin Luther King Jr. when he was assassinated and ultimately helps create the Black Panthers. Seriously?
Once in the White House, the story moves from administration to administration focusing on the civil rights issues that affected the nation at the time. It’s history for the masses but probably would have been better served focusing on the butler and the White House. Daniels’ makes the unlikeliest of casting choices for the roles of the Presidents. Some work and some don’t. Robin Williams is Eisenhower, Live Schrieber is Lyndon B. Johnson, John Cusack is Nixon, James Marsden is John F. Kennedy and Alan Rickman is Ronald Reagan; with Jane Fonda as Nancy. Schrieber and Rickman fair the best.
Much will be made about Oprah Winfrey but don’t believe the hype. There’s nothing special here. Forest Whitaker is good to a fault. The film covers decades of this man’s life but he still feels the same throughout; it doesn’t feel like he’s affected. Clearly the role is nowhere near as well-written or performed as his Oscar-winning turn in The Last King of Scotland but one would expect better. The rest of the supporting cast features Clarence Williams III, Cuba Gooding Jr., Mariah Carey, Vanessa Redgrave and David Oyelowo.
Having expectations as to what one will see often doesn’t pay off. Instead of a drama about a butler and his time in the White House serving numerous Presidents, which is what this viewer wanted to see, we are given a history lesson about Civil Rights. Civil Rights has been done. This was a rare opportunity squandered by not going with the true story. The Remains of the Day may have been boring to some but to this viewer that butler’s life was invigorating and I’m left to wonder just what kind of a life did Allen have while serving. Guess we’ll never know.