It has been a long time since Hollywood had made a family saga spanning 90 years but it hasn’t been that long since ‘based on a true story’ has been distorted and changed and Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ does both. The screenplay is by Danny Strong telling 3 different stories that sometimes gels and other times remain separate and apart. The first story is about Eugene Allen, here named Cecil Gaines, and played by Forest Whitaker, who was the butler at the White House during 8 administrations, with stunt casting of presidents and first ladies. The second story is of his marriage to Gloria Gaines, played by Oprah Winfrey, and his two sons Louis and Charlie, played by various actors at different ages (in real life they only had one son), while the third story is the history of Black America, Black Americans and the fight for their civil rights ending in 2008 with Obama, the president elect.
There are major roles played by Cuba Gooding, jr., Terrence Howard, James Holloway, Yaya Alafia, Elijah Kelly, David Oyelowo, Lenny Kravitz, Colman Domingo and Clarence Williams 3rd all doing better than good jobs.
Most adults will be familiar with all the civil rights pictures, some recreated, some shown in their original TV stories, such as sit-ins, Freedom Riders, the Black Panther Party, Blacks being hit with water hoses and Black people being put in jail while it might be a good, and new, lesson to those under 35.
The stunt casting has Robin Williams as President Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber as President Johnson, James Marsden playing John Kennedy, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as President and Mrs. Reagan, John Cusack as Nixon, Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy and Nelson Ellis. There are appearances by Mariah Carey, Vanessa Redgrave, David Banner and Alex Pettyfer.
Forest Whitaker holds the picture together, while Winfrey as his wife gives him solid support. The director, Lee Daniels, loses control of the 3 separate stories, not melding them as well as he should, but does go for the tear ducts and manipulates the audiences feelings. The production values covering the decades of costumes, make-up, hair designs and set designs are first rate from beginning to end.
The bottom line is that you who lived through the events won’t be able to avoid the feelings but you will feel tricked by the corny screenplay.