(director: Lee Daniels; screenwriters: Danny Strong/inspired by the article “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” by Wil Haygood; cinematographer: Andrew Dunn; editor: Joe Klotz; music: Rodrigo Leão; cast: Forest Whitaker (Cecil Gaines), Oprah Winfrey (Gloria Gaines), Mariah Carey (Hattie Pearl), John Cusack (Richard M. Nixon), Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Carter Wilson), Terrence Howard (Howard), Lenny Kravitz (James Holloway), James Marsden (John F. Kennedy), David Oyelowo (Louis Gaines), Elijah Kelly(Charles Gaines), Alex Pettyfer (Thomas Westfall), Vanessa Redgrave (Annabeth Westfall), Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan), Liev Schreiber (Lyndon B. Johnson), Robin Williams (Dwight D. Eisenhower), Yaya Alafia (Carol Hammie), Michael Rainey Jr. (Young Cecil), Aml Ameen (Cecil Gaines, age 15), Colman Domingo (Freddie Fallows), Nelsan Ellis (Martin Luther King Jr.), Clarence Williams III (Maynard), Jim Gleason (R.D. Warner), David Banner (Earl Gaines); Runtime: 130; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Pamela Oas Williams/Laura Ziskin/Lee Daniels/Buddy Patrick/Cassian Elwes; the Weinstein Company; 2013)
If Forest Whitaker wasn’t in this film, it would have been a misfire.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Black filmmaker Lee Daniels(“Precious”/”Paperboy”/”Shadowboxer”) directs with emotional punch and the white Emmy Award-winning screenwriter Danny Strong writes the uneven political screenplay to tell the fictionalized remarkable ‘only in America’ story about the real-life black uneducated White House butler Eugene Allen, here called Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who served eight U.S. presidents over the course of 30 years (between 1957 and 1986) and witnessed from the vantage point of the Oval Office history changing to such a degree that in his lifetime there was, what he thought to be impossible, in 2008, the election of the first black American president in Barack Obama. The sprawling story is loosely based on Allen’s life, who died in 2010, and was inspired by the 2008 article in the Washington Post entitled “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” by Wil Haygood. The overly ambitious pic, trying to fit in the entire civil rights movement with the butler’s personal story and at the same time tried to tell the story of how African-Americans looked at white America when talking amongst themselves. It also affords a rare look into how the WH staff functions.

The inspirational biopic, vouchsafing with supposedly sugary outcomes that the American Dream is always alive no matter the dire circumstances, serves as a shaky manipulative history lesson, one that has some rousing genuine moments (the crosscutting of Woolworth lunch counter sit-downs in the segregated south with WH fancy state dinners) but far too many sentimental ones. It reminds one of the old-fashioned prestige films the studios felt obligated to make back in the day to satisfy their social consciences and to let everyone know they’re not always in the business for the bottom-line and making just crap that sells.

It begins in 1926, in Macon, Georgia, and on a cruel cotton plantation where life changes rapidly in one day for the young Cecil (Michael Rainey Jr.), who realizes his mom (Mariah Carey) is forced to have sex with the piggish white overseer (Alex Pettyfer) and watches the overseer in cold-blood kill his sharecropper dad (David Banner) for looking at him in wonder about his animal actions. The plantation matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave), out of pity for what her vile son did, takes the boy out of the field and he’s taught to be a house servant. The matriarch gives Cecil his lifetime mantra: “The room should feel empty when you’re in it.”

When a teenager Cecil leaves the plantation and his muted crazy mom, and lucks out by hooking up with the sympathetic elderly North Carolina hotel butler (Clarence Williams III). He takes Cecil under his wings and into service in the hotel and teaches him all the tricks of the trade. As an adult Cecil (Forest Whitaker) is recommended by him to be the waiter in Washington, D.C.’s ritzy Excelsior Hotel and soon marries the hotel maid Gloria (Oprah Winfrey). Cecil, after years of good service and raising a family he keeps materially comfortable, is recommended for the WH butler position by a ranking Truman staffer. At the WH, Cecil is indoctrinated by maitre d’ (Colman Domingo) into what it takes to be a servant in the WH (“keep politics out of the WH”) and is befriended by the head butler (Cuba Gooding). Cecil learns that the same rules of being invisible that were applicable in his plantation servitude also apply here, as the main rule to be obeyed without question is to see nothing and hear nothing. The most interesting dynamics of the film was watching Cecil operate in such a vacuum, while presidents through the decades talked in his presence with advisers as if he didn’t exist. They discussed such hot button topics as sending in troops in Little Rock to enforce school integration, the civil rights marches as it politically affected their administrations, the Vietnam War and its divisiveness for the country and their political careers, and how to respond to apartheid in South Africa.

Some of the choices to play the presidents were simply atrocious: Robin Williams as Eisenhower being the poorest and most outrageous unconvincing selection, with a hammy Alan Rickman unable to capture much about Reagan that seemed real, and the John Cusack portrayal of Nixon is simply a dreadful one that never clicked even though his Nixon had the best skit as played out in the butler’s kitchen. The more bearable (but still not good) portrayals had Liev Schreiber as a ‘nigger’ spouting LBJ, ironically using his influence to pass the most comprehensive civil rights bill ever, and James Marsden stiffly trying to channel the slickness of JFK to no avail.

If Forest Whitaker wasn’t in this film, it would have been a misfire. But he’s in this film and gives the well-meaning but lackluster pic some of the gravitas it deserves, of giving the general public some idea what the black staff in the WH was thinking about while so obediently serving their presidents and maintaining a positive image of being hard working respectable family orientated blacks in a rapidly changing America. Unfortunately I felt more manipulated than moved, and felt the pic tried covering too much ground for its own good (the story of how the butler became estranged from his Freedom Marcher older son Louis (David Oyelowo) had enough material that it could have been a separate melodramatic film). Though the pic’s strongest scene, had an angered Oprah slap her militant son for dissing his dad as a house nigger –pointing out that he’s the one who fed him and gave him everything he had, and paid for his Fisk College education that he spurned to save America’s soul.

REVIEWED ON 8/16/2013 GRADE: C+   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/