Every time a character in The Butler
goes on a trip, somebody offers him a ham sandwich. Director Lee Daniels does much the same for the viewer—in every single scene. It isn’t hard to see why Daniels wanted to tell this story, which is based (very) loosely on truth. It’s kind of irresistible: A black White House butler, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker, having lost so much weight he looks a bit like Mr. Toad), serves closely with every U.S. president during the civil rights era and lives to be invited back to the White House by Barack Obama. The black man in the White House proceeds from invisibly serving power to sitting in it. But the writer of The Paperboy
isn’t known for subtlety, and he treats 50 years of U.S. history with as much depth as a Forrest Gump
montage, although the politics here are triumphally progressive. As a movie, The Butler
is a blundering oaf with good intentions, effusively sentimental but cursed with hands made of mutton. A lot of the real fun is in the casting, which ranges from expected—Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s earthy and soulful wife—to entirely ludicrous: a sniveling Robin Williams as Eisenhower, an outmatched Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy. The best joke in the movie is the casting of “Hanoi Jane” Fonda as Nancy Reagan. The film’s full title is Lee Daniels’ The Butler
, and the subject of the movie doesn’t matter, because Lee Daniels has decided that Lee Daniels is going to make you cry, and he’s going to hit you over the head until you do.