‘The Butler’: Good but Falls Short of Great

Lee Daniels' new film groans under the weight of great black expectations.

Forest Whitaker stars in Lee Daniels' The Butler (screenshot from movie trailer on YouTube)
Forest Whitaker stars in Lee Daniels' The Butler (screenshot from movie trailer on YouTube)

(The Root) — Going out to the latest Big Black Movie has been political for a long time. We don’t like how we are portrayed in film, so black people show up en masse at worthy opening nights. We want to reward film investors who show us doing more than just twerkin’ and jerkin’. We are often excluded from history, so we support those who tell our stories.  

These are excellent reasons to go see Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

But if you are looking for a film to push the culture forward, take you to a new place, leave you with an unexpected taste in your mouth — for a transformative experience that forever alters the nation’s cultural DNA — Lee Daniels’ The Butler ain’t it.

Not that the premise of the story — the true story of Eugene Allen, a black man who served as butler to eight different U.S. presidents — is not powerful. And Forest Whitaker does what he can in the title role of Cecil Gaines. Oprah Winfrey, playing the butler’s wife, Gloria, far from embarrasses herself.

But what should have been a powerful story about one black man’s intimate relationship with power chokes on the struggle to give voice to “millions of black strivers” and tips toward schmaltz. The all-star cast refuses to dim its lights in service of the humble butler’s story.

Not all of the A-list actors overdo it. As the Gaines’ lascivious neighbor, Terrence Howard plays his usual greasy, low-down, dirty-dog role to perfection. Mariah Carey melts into the role of Gaines’ sharecropper mom. Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. strike the right tone as the butler’s White House colleagues.

I’m talking about Jane Fonda and Robin Williams hamming it up as Nancy Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack and Liev Schreiber playing Saturday Night Live versions of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. Nelsan Ellis plays a fine Martin Luther King Jr., but he is so good as the flaming gay medium on HBO’s True Blood, his MLK portrayal is more distracting than anything.

Then, of course, there is the incandescent Ms. Oprah Winfrey herself, who is funny, flawed and human, and a delight to watch. She tells her husband, referring to his job serving the president, “I don’t care what goes on in that. House. I care about what goes on in this. House.” It is great to see her back on the big screen, so funny and loose with her grammar and her body.

But that also means that she (and the rest of the stars) takes up all the oxygen in the movie theater. There is no room for our quiet, sainted butler to breathe.