Back in the summer there was a somewhat prominent story in the world of film over the title for Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Originally titled just The Butler, Warner Bros. started up a small quarrel with the Weinstein Company over whether the later had the right to call their film The Butler. After a defeat in court, the Weinstein Company was forced to tack on the director’s name onto the title in a last ditch attempt to keep the film’s release on track. While the title change obviously had no effect on the quality of the film it is still funny to note that Lee Daniels’ contributions to the film end up bring the worst part of the film. There is a good film somewhere within Lee Daniels’ The Butler, but most of the film’s potential is gone to waste thanks to the heavy-handedness of Lee Daniels’ direction and Danny Strong’s script.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler follows the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a butler who ends up serving for six different presidential administrations, and his son (David Oyelowo), who becomes an activist at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement.
This film would have worked a lot better as a more literal adaptation of the life of Eugene Allen (the real life butler that this film is loosely based on). Allowing the director and writer of a film to freely go about with their adaptation of a historical story would seemingly allow more creative. However, in the case of this film, the liberties that Lee Daniels and Danny Strong take with the film end up being for the worse. The main characters of Cecil and his son are just shoehorned into major historical events to make the film seem more important. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of character development. We come across many historical figures throughout the film’s runtime. Most of them are introduced as if they are to become fully developed characters only to be disregarded minutes later as almost cartoonish caricatures. Even worse is the character development for the non-historical figures outside of Cecil and his son. For instance, Cecil’s wife (played by Oprah Winfrey) has plotlines emerge out of the blue as if they had been occurring from the very beginning.
The cast is a mixed bag and largely depend on the quality of the directing and writing at any given moment. It takes a while for Forest Whitaker to get anything worthwhile to do as his character’s origin story is quite a slog, but he gets some great material as he enters the White House. David Oyelowo is largely forgettable, though, as his storyline constantly struggles to be as interesting as the main one. The highlights of the supporting cast are James Marsden (who certainly does a better job at portraying John F. Kennedy then whatever it was that Rob Lowe was doing recently in Killing Kennedy) and Alan Rickman (who comes across as a stoic Ronald Reagan even if he may be the most erratically written character in an already erratic film).
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a mess of a film.