Lee Daniel’s The Butler (2013): The Trouble with Famous Faces

The Butler is none other than Cecil Gaines, an African American who has worked in the White House serving eight presidents from the late 50’s to the 80’s. Never heard of him? Good, because, as screenwriter Danny Strong (who wrote the Sarah Palin satire Game Change) has emphasized, Cecil Gaines is a fictional character, albeit there was a real life person who had done similar things for thirty-four years through eight Administrations in the White House. He was Eugene Allen. The movie is fiction inspired by that true story. But here, it’s all about Cecil Gaines, a character that Forest Whitaker portrays convincingly.

That leads to this Disclaimer: This is not an Accuracy Police report. But, uh… just a memo from the Facial ID department.

The Butler Movie Poster

After watching The Butler, I’d like to recommend that movie stars go on sabbatical leaves. After a certain number of years of high-profile, on-screen appearances, famous actors or talk show hosts should pursue other interests, anything that’s behind the camera… write, direct, produce, compose, climb K2… before coming back out for another movie role. For here, I can see the distractions that can come from too famous a face.

Why? It takes me a long while to adjust to Oprah being the alcohol-dependent Mrs. Gaines, despite her strong performance, or, tell myself that’s Dwight D. Eisenhower I’m looking at, not Robin Williams. With every Administration that flashes by, my focus as a viewer is more on figuring out which famous star is playing which famous politician. That’s James Marsden as JFK, and Liev Schreiber as uh… comical LBJ… sitting on a toilet while barking instructions to his staff?

By the time John Cusack comes on screen, I’m asking myself, now, who is he supposed to be? I can only see John Cusack, and it looks like he’s trying to convince me that, “No! I’m Richard Nixon!” He too, looks like a caricature. Later when Ronald Reagan appears, I can only see the make-up. Sorry Alan Rickman,  didn’t recognize you. Looks like you’re wearing a Halloween mask. I must say though, hats off to Jane Fonda, she’s one good Nancy look-alike, although I know she has her share of protests. Now, that’s another issue… the incompatibility of ‘Hanoi Jane’ taking up the role of Nancy Reagan. I can understand why some Vietnam War vets are up in arms.

The Butler & his wife

The trouble with famous faces… they have a hard time convincing viewers that they are not who they appear but the character they are playing. In The Butler, that just might not be a problem because it seems the filmmakers are confident that star power can get us through. Further, the sequences of Administrations go by so quickly, they are more like passing spectacles than memorable episodes.

Other than star powers that function only on appearance, there are some riveting scenes from the main storyline, that of a father-son relationship against the backdrop of racial turmoils in America. While Cecil Gaines works as a butler in the White House all those years, his son Louis (David Oyelowo) has been deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement, arrested and jailed several times, often putting his life at risk. Major differences in political viewpoints generate sparks and tensions to eventual deep gulf between father and son.

A memorable scene is when father and son argue at the dinner table over Sidney Poitier winning the Academy Award. Cecil thinks that is a sign showing white people are accepting and honoring blacks. But son Louis points out Poitier is appeasing white viewers in presenting himself as a white, black man. Interesting thought, not unheard of. The subsequent result of the argument makes a memorable scene.

Juxtaposing actors’ performance with visceral archival footage of racial violence like the lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Bus burning by the Ku Klux Klan, the assassination of Martin Luther King… makes some informative and engaging storytelling. That may be the reason why, after the pivotal historical accounts of the Civil Rights Movement, the movie begins to lose my attention. What looks to be significant begins to appear parochial towards the end, where I even feel some partisan undercurrents.

Overall, the movie may have been too ambitious in covering everything, a father-son relationship, the black family, the country’s racial conflicts, the Vietnam War, to South Africa’s Apartheid. Its Forest Gump-esque storytelling lacks a unified and consistent styling. The incompatibility applies to the choice of music too. I’m fine with the period music of the eras, but using the Schumann Piano Concerto in A Minor at the opening scene feels like a mismatch. Other familiar classical pieces like Mozart’s piano sonatas for White House scenes sound like casual and superficial picks.

A movie riding on its star-studded cast… a mixed bag of famous faces. If you like a parade, this is fun to look at.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples