Yes, seriously, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is the name of this movie. Even though this movie is ostensibly “based on a true story,” the director is responsible for it. The title is actually a clue: the filmmakers have so altered the story as to completely alter it. This is, in effect, the Black Forrest Gump.
Now, that is a bit of an insult in some ways. This is a film that tries to deal more seriously with the past than Forrest Gump and attempts to tell us about that history in a way that is, at times, quite affecting. But it’s the way that they do this, that I have a problem with. Specifically: why is the actual story never good enough?
I imagine that the actual story of the actual man who was a butler for 34 years (or whatever) is maybe not so drama-filled but is still really illustrative of the racial issues that have troubled the US. But this movie doesn’t want to tell that story. Instead, it wants to tell The Story of Black America through this time period and so it invents people (the elder son) to experience all the touchstones in history. (Seriously, this gets absolutely ridiculous: the son becomes the guy who gets barked at in Birmingham.) After he participates in sit-ins and joins the Freedom Riders and then the Black Panthers. Oh yeah, he meets Martin Luther King too. (But of course.)
And in order to have some family drama, Oprah’s character is a drunk too. Oh, and the younger son has to go to Vietnam. Of course.
Then there’s the hilarious stunt casting as the President: Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, James Marsden as Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Johnson and Alan Rickman as Reagan. (And Jane Fonda as Nancy. Ford and Carter don’t get famous celebrity actors.)
But the movie as history lesson ends just prior to Watergate, then it just jumps through nearly one decade of history in about 5 minutes so that he can get invited to the State Dinner. (This is one of the few things that actually did happen, for sure.) But there’s an issue with this scene too, as Gooding’s character and and Kravitz’s character, whom we’ve been led to believe have both served at the White House longer than the main character, do not get to go to the dinner. Why? There’s no explanation and we’re supposed to assume that they’re just not as important as The Butler.
Aside from a history lesson, this also feels like it’s an apology to the generation of The Butler from their kids, who challenged them and mocked their domestic service as being servile. It feels as though it’s an attempt on the part of the filmmakers to say to their (probably dead) parents that they’re sorry for not understanding. But, if this is the case, I feel like telling the true story would be better than this movie.
PS: I should note that none of this is on Whitaker or Oprah.