The Butler: A Good Movie Weighed Down by An Overabundance of Cameos

Kick-Ass 2 and Jobs tanked this weekend while The Butler claimed the top of the box office. Not surprising, really, considering Kick-Ass 2 was a sequel, Jobs massacred Steve Jobs’ biography, and The Butler had Oprah Winfrey (She doesn’t star in movies that flop. That’s for peasants). But does that mean The Butler is a good movie?

Lee Daniels, director of the Academy-Award-nominated Precious, directed and co-wrote this script with Danny Strong of Game Change, making The Butler one of our first Oscar contenders of the year. But you already knew that, right? I mean, the Civil Rights movement, Forest Whitaker, Oprah, and The Weinstein Company—this movie isn’t f***ing around. It wants those nominations.

Still, I find it strange that this movie was released so early in the game. The Oscars don’t occur until February (usually late February, too), which leaves a lot of time for other movies to shock and awe, and most Oscar-bait films don’t premiere until at least November or December. Maybe that’s why I find this quote about The Butler from reviewer Willie Waffle (Haha!) to be absolutely spot-on: “You realize it was released in the summer as an Oscar contender because it won’t be an Oscar contender in November.”

Why do I find that spot-on? Let’s chat, shall we?

Here’s how The Weinstein Company describes the plot: “Lee Daniel’s The Butler tells the story of a White House butler who served eight American presidents over three decades. The film traces the dramatic changes that swept American society during this time—from the civil rights movement to Vietnam and beyond—and how those changes affected this man’s life and family. Forest Whitaker stars as the butler with Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, and many more.”

The story of The Butler is based on the true story of Eugene Allen (1919-2010), who served as a butler in the White House for 34 years. The film, of course, renames the character to Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) for more creative freedom. For the most part, Gaines’ story stays somewhat close to Allen’s story. Gaines is a man born into servitude on a farm in Georgia (Note: Not “slavery” because the first flashback we see takes place in the 1920s).

When he’s a teenager, Gaines travels north and finds a job at a hotel, where he learns the tricks of the trade. Eventually, he makes his way up to a fancy hotel in Washington D.C., where he’s discovered by a White House manager, who then asks him to join the staff as a butler. Throughout his time as a butler for the White House, Gaines witnesses the presidencies of Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford and Carter (both of whom are skipped in the film), and Reagan. Meanwhile, Gaines’ wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is depressed and drinks too much, oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) has joined the Civil Rights movement in both peaceful and violent protests, and youngest son Charlie (Elijah Kelly) has fought and died in Vietnam.

Essentially, Gaines is a man caught between two worlds—one where blacks are trusted and liked (even though they’re still paid lower) and another where blacks are segregated, beaten, harassed, and killed for simply being black. We see this comparison of the two worlds whenever Gaines is serving one of the presidents at a dinner party while Louis is being attacked by white rioters.

Now, let me make this abundantly clear. I grew up white, female, and middle-class, so I cannot possibly understand what Black-American culture went through (and still goes through). Because of that, it makes it very difficult to criticize this movie. Somebody somewhere will think, “Oh, well, you just don’t like it because it makes your race look bad.” Wrong. I liked this movie a lot. The Butler is a GREAT story, detailing the life of an amazing man, as well as a history that our country should be ashamed of.

That being said, that great story too often felt rushed. How can you take the life of one man witnessing all of these major events and make it not seem fast? Seriously, The Butler spans nearly a century from the 1920s to Obama’s election. That’s a lot of ground to cover. But you know what? Forrest Gump followed one man through major events between the 1950s and 1980s (much shorter, I know) successfully. How is it that Forrest Gump could do what The Butler tried to do without feeling rushed? Honestly, I think it’s because Forrest Gump didn’t try to include every high-profile actor in its movie.

This is my problem with The Butler. There are too many actors fighting for screen-time. In fact, each famous face that appears in the movie distracts from the story at hand. Don’t believe me? Here’s a list of the actors I recognized alone (without the help of IMDb): Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Elijah Kelly, Liev Schreiber, Nelsan Ellis, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Mariah Carey, and Alex Pettyfer.

Sure, most of them are only cameos, but putting that many famous faces into roles (that are ridiculously small) becomes a novelty—and novelties draw us away from what’s important. Could you focus on the patriotism beating you over the head in the film’s tone or the symbolism in the set design and camera angles? No, you were too busy wondering why they cast the very anti-government Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. This movie would’ve been a lot better had they used Whitaker, Winfrey, Oyelowo, and maybe one or two other familiar faces as the main cast and then left the supporting roles (like the presidents) to unknown actors. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only Oscar-bait film attempting the famous ensemble cast this year (See: 12 Years a SlaveAugust: Osage County).

Now that I’ve criticized the “too many famous actors” problem, it’s time to praise the main actors.

Forest Whitaker is great as Cecil Gaines. Whether his performance can beat out a tough line-up of possible Best Actor nominees this year, I don’t know (12 Years a Slave‘s Chiwetel Ejiofor is looking good). Whitaker’s Gaines showed a smiling charm in the face of racism and adversity, yet he managed to always give us a hint of vulnerability and sadness behind that charm. (As his character says in the movie, “The butler must wear two faces.”) No matter what ethnicity, age, or gender you are, it’s hard not to ride along with Whitaker on Gaines’ emotional rollercoaster.

Unfortunately, Whitaker seems to get overshadowed by his more-famous onscreen wife, Oprah Winfrey, who plays Gloria Gaines. And goddamnit, she’s absolutely fantastic. I can predict with certainty that Winfrey will get a Best Supporting Actress nomination because her performance is sassy and heartbreaking. She’s just so dynamic onscreen that it’s hard to take your eyes off her whenever she’s in a scene (especially when she’s dancing disco in a giant afro). It makes me wonder why Winfrey gave up acting to become a businesswoman.

David Oyelowo, who plays the Gaines’ oldest son Louis, is quite enthralling as the peaceful Civil Rights protestor turned Black Panther turned politician. While Oyelowo’s performance is very good and sympathetic, Louis’ story almost takes away from the focus of Cecil’s story (like everything else in the movie). As I said earlier, it was nice that their two stories were paralleled to show the difference between their worlds. But the events in Louis’ life should’ve been in the background, acting more as a device to drive Cecil’s story and not the movie itself. After all, this movie isn’t Lee Daniels’ Louis Gaines: The Activist, Based on the Novel “Push” By Sapphire.

Other cameos that were notable: James Marsden as John F. Kennedy and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. In fact, if they ever do a good JFK biopic, they need to call Marsden. He’s got the looks and the charisma. Alan Rickman is always a fine specimen of good acting. You can tell he practiced the Reagan voice (and Rickman’s British!).

Overall, The Butler is a good movie with strong acting from its leads, but its script is clumsy, rushing through nearly a century’s worth of events. I know it’s impossible to fit that much information into a two-and-a-half hour movie, but director Lee Daniels and writer Danny Strong spent so much of the movie jumping away from the main character, Cecil Gaines, to show events that have been drilled into the heads of most of their viewers since middle school. Not that these events shouldn’t be shown, as they are imperative to the struggles of Black-American culture; they just needed to be a little less important than Gaines, himself, acting more as a setting and less as the main plot (because Gaines’ story is the main plot).

Another problem this movie has is that there are so many famous actors in small roles that they draw away from the main characters and story. And while some of those cameos are good (specifically James Marsden as John F. Kennedy and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan), the movie feels cluttered. I now understand why this movie was released in August instead of during the normal Oscar-bait season. It will definitely wrangle a nomination for Oprah Winfrey and maybe Forest Whitaker, but other than that, it’s only a “good” contender. And in an upcoming mass of heavy-hitting films, that’s not enough.

I was torn on the grade for this one. Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey’s acting and the overall tone of this film deserves an A, but the story, direction, and cameos make it a B. So I came to the middle conclusion.

The Butler: A-/B+

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