That "inspired by a true story" blurb on the poster. You see it? Take that seriously. There's a great story here about a White House butler who has served every president from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, for over thirty years. He had his own family, a wife and a son. He grew up on a plantation, and worked his way to help serve the most important person in the world. Then, amazingly, he lived to see an African-American get elected into the white house twenty years later. That is a great story, for sure.
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" contains only a small chunk of this story, the rest is largely fictionalized for dramatic purposes. The strength of The Butler lies in the solid performance of Forest Whitaker and the restrained (for the most part) direction from Lee Daniels. There are times when he can't help but play up the more dramatic aspects of the film, but he actually did a very solid job. Many critics have noted a remarkable similarity between this film and Forrest Gump, and you know what, they are pretty damn similar.
The films starts out in 1926 on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Young Cecil Gaines helps pick cotton with his parents, but soon the plantation owner walks on over, grabbing Cecil's mother and raping her in the shed. Then, just because Cecil's father looked at him, the owner shoots him in the head. You can't help but feel bad for Cecil, of course, because those are two very traumatic events happening one right after the other. And guess what? They didn't actually happen. The man Cecil's based on, Eugene Allen, grew up on a plantation in Virginia and actually had fond memories of his childhood there.
We see Cecil break into someone's home because he's starving and he's looking for food. An elder butler catches him and soon takes a liking to him, giving him work. None of this really happened either.
Cecil eventually winds up working as a butler in a very fancy DC hotel and the professionalism of his work soon leads him to a job in the White House. By this time, Cecil has a wife and two kids. His youngest son, looks up to him, and winds up fighting in the Vietnam War (did happen). Sadly, the son winds up dying in Vietnam (didn't actually happen). He has an older son who looks down at his father's profession and winds up going to college, getting involved in numerous historical Civil Rights events. It's unbelievable what his eldest son goes through... probably because it never happened. Eugene Allen only had one son, a son who was never a Civil Rights activist nor did his son wind up working for Congress. None of it happened!
Nor did Eugene's wife wind up having a drinking problem due to Eugene being away all the time. Nor did Eugene's wife have an affair (that we know of) with her next door neighbor. Eugene's first day in the White House wasn't during the historical moment when Dwight D. Eisenhower made the decision to racially integrate a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Eugene was certainly there, but by that time, he had actually been working for the White House for five years! Eugene Allen began his job under the Truman administration not Eisenhower's.
There's also been talk about the inaccuracies of some of the policy decisions some of the presidents make throughout the film. There are actually so few similarities between Cecil Gaines and Eugene Allen that you wonder what makes the film special in the first place. Was Eugene's life too boring for the filmmakers? Did he not have enough interesting events happen in his own life? The film is framed in a way that strongly mimics "Forrest Gump" and it has all of the sentimental schlock to go with it.
So many of the film's emotional moments simply feel hollow. Why say that the film is based on a true story in the beginning if you're going to fabricate nearly all of it? I can even forgive inventing the Civil Rights activist son in order to further delve into that territory of the time period, but does the son really need to be at every historical Civil Rights event? Can't we at least somewhat make it believable? Why does every aspect of Cecil Gaines's life have to feel so goddamned contrived? Instead of making his wife an alcoholic cheater, why not just focus more on his work in the White House? You know, the part of the story that's actually unique and interesting? Why invent so much bullshit about his personal life? Why kill his youngest son? Why do we have to feel so bad about this guy? Can't we just feel happy for him, that he has this job, that he's been there so long, that he's been a witness to all these events from inside the most famous residence in the country?
While, again, there are some solid performances here such as Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., etc... The film is also marred by the bizarre casting choices such as Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower and John Cusack as Richard Nixon. Or Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson. Or James Marsden as JFK. Or Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan! Good lord! All of these actors appear in the film for, maybe, one or two scenes, thus making the scenes all about the actor playing the character instead of making it about the scene that's taking place. It's just distracting and it further de-legitimizes the film.
There is so much crammed into 132 minutes, so much unnecessary story details. We are given so much detail into this life of a man who didn't actually exist, why can't we just be told the true story? Why make it all up? The film's at its best when we're at the White House with Cecil, when he's interacting with his fellow butler friends or with the president. But at home? Because none of his home life is based on fact, it just feels like contrived overly-sentimental bullshit.
Here's the thing - I was duped. And perhaps I'm just bitter. I did not do my homework until after I saw the film and I just feel betrayed as a film-goer. Because the film covers one "big, emotional" event after another "big, emotional" event, over and over again, I thought all these events were grounded in the truth.
When a film delves into genre territory, like a thriller or a horror film. Or if a film is made pretty clear that it's a dramatization of events, like with The Social Network, you can forgive liberties here and there. But "The Butler" is a straight up historical drama and it's presented as if it's a biopic. To have so much of Cecil's life not be based on fact, it just makes all the drama feel hollow and superficial. As it stands, this is the most superficial film I've seen in quite some time. It's Fool's gold. It's not even a movie, really, it's an experiment in making the most cliche, made-up Hollywood biopic of all-time. There's no way I can recommend this film.