Lee Daniels’ The Butler

No matter how many times I read that title, this movie will always be either Tyler Perry’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler, obviously, or less obviously, Danny Strong’s The Butler to me. (Whatever gets you through the day, you know?)

I so looked forward to watching this because of the cavalcade of stars playing various presidents, and on some level I knew this would be disastrous, but I didn’t actually envision other parts of the movie being disastrous. The Butler felt like one bad play, one good play, and one mediocre movie mashed together into a single behemoth media event. The bad play contained horrible makeup, Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, John Cusack as Nixon, Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as Kennedy, Alan Rickman as Reagan, Mariah Carey as the title character’s silent mother, and speaking of title characters, Forest Whitaker as the actual butler, Cecil Gaines. Everyone in that group, including Forest I believe, was stunt-cast. They all did the best they could, especially Forest, but none of these people had any chemistry with one another. Forest was incredibly difficult to understand, and tried too hard to make his accent “humble;” I know he was supposed to come from a poor background and everything, but this is a movie made in English. Some sacrifices have to be made, and changing the dialect of the main character ever-so-slightly to make him more easily heard was not one of them.

The good play contained Cuba Gooding Jr. as Cecil’s best friend, Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s wife, Alex Pettyfer doing his best Michael Fassbender impression, Liev Schreiber as Johnson, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Nelsan Ellis as MLK Jr., and precisely no one as Barack Obama. Yes, all of these save for the last one are stunt-casts, too, but they were so much better and more convincing. Oprah was dazzling, and infuriating because WHAT CAN’T SHE DO?! Cuba, well, I wish he would show up in more stuff (and Terrence in less) because his enthusiasm is so genuine. I think Jane Fonda is more Nancy Reagan than actual Nancy Reagan is. Nelsan Ellis looks like MLK, for Pete’s sake. And Schreiber was quite odd as Johnson, to be honest, but he acted the hell out of it so I have to give him props for trying, and for doing that one scene on the toilet. Thank god they edited around Obama, instead of stunt-casting him, because the movie would have ended on such an awkward note. (“And… Jay Pharaoh as President Obama! Give it up!”)

The mediocre movie flipped back and forth between moments of saccharine, string quartet-heavy scenes that were supposed to make you cry, and reenactments of historical events that actually did make you cry. The diner sit-ins, led by David Oyelowo as Cecil’s son Louis, were incredibly powerful to watch. It must have been so difficult to stage those scenes, and to feel a fraction of the pain that the students felt as they were being beaten by racists and bigots for merely sitting at a diner counter and attempting to order food. Even Minka Kelly, stunt-cast herself as Jackie O, made me tear up. They put her in the pink suit and everything, splashed with blood like on the day Kennedy was shot, and just showed her freaking out alone in a room in the White House. You don’t think about that until the moment is in front of you. And, of course, at the end of the movie, when BHO is elected, Cecil Gaines’ entire face and body and soul light up. It’s like everything was worth it for him. Saccharine, again, but probably very true. The movie is based on a true story, after all.

I commend all of these big names for being involved in telling such an epic tale, but I wish so much that the tale had been told better, with less focus on who’s-playing-who and more focus on the small characters that propelled Cecil through his life. Cecil himself was one of those small characters who fit himself into the lives of great people, but he never really got credit for being there until the end of his life. I just hope the real guy got some satisfaction out of knowing that others would know his story.

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