Sometimes there are movies you hope will be really good, because to say anything against them would be nearly the same as disparaging their message. The Butler (ahem, excuse me) Lee Daniels' The Butler is one of those. Unfortunately, it is not really good. It tries to be about family struggles and race relations, but in lacking one focus ends up being about neither. It is essentially a well-intentioned cameo reel.
The movie is about Cecil (Whitaker), a man who has elevated himself from cotton farmer to hotel butler. He lands the gig of a lifetime being one of a handful of butlers at the White House, which gives him an inside perspective to the political turmoil around civil rights and changing times.
As I said, the movie is well-intentioned, but ultimately directionless. Cecil is a deliberately non-political man, so any foray into civil rights is shown through his son, Louis, who leaves college to be a freedom rider. This is certainly noble on his part, but for us is no different than any other movie about civil rights ever. It also has the added burden of being a story of which everybody knows the end: after tribulation, they triumph and win equal rights. It adds nothing to the incredible human drama of the civil rights movement, which is almost shameful in a movie purporting to be about just that.
On the other hand, there is the story we don't know about Cecil's complicated family life. He all but disowns his son for being a freedom rider. His wife is an alcoholic and their marriage isn't exactly a model of happiness. But all of this feels depthless. Of course they overcome their problems, and it is about as simple as that. What could have been a compelling family drama with a backdrop of civil struggle is not much of either.
On the other other hand, there is Cecil's experience serving seven US Presidents. This, of all the rest, could have been the most unique part of the movie, but felt the most haphazard. Most of them are miscast, ranging from a Robin Williams who looks like he's just finished chemo playing Eisenhower to Professor Snape with a haircut as Ronald Reagan. None has more than a few minutes or is any deeper than a caricature touched by Cecil's plight as the father of an activist. This is somehow shown to be the tipping of the scales for Kennedy to speak out, for Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act, and for Ronny to intervene in South Africa.
It is not a poorly-made or even a poorly-acted movie, only poorly conceived. What could be a lasting testament to the civil rights struggle or an honest personal portrait of a regular man with an uncommon story only ends up being a maudlin attempt to tug our heartstrings.
Lee Daniels' The Butler features Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, 500 cameos, and is rated PG-13 for thematic material and racial language.
by Chase Harrison