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Whitaker and Winfrey Make 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' Worth Seeing

But White House butler's fictionalized story lacks historical drama

Rating: PG-13           Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes

Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, Liev Schreiber, Jane Fonda

Director: Lee Daniels

Lee Daniels, who gained fame as a director with the 2009 film Precious, surely imagined great cinematic potential when he signed on to bring to the big screen the story of Eugene Allen, a real-life White House butler who served U.S. presidents from Harry Truman through Ronald Reagan.

Certainly there was opportunity for award-winning casting, and Daniels did well to select Forest Whitaker for the leading role, along with Oprah Winfrey as the titular butler's loyal wife. But too many Hollywood A-listers in supporting roles become a distraction. And the bounds of credibility are stretched by Daniels' and writer Danny Strong's fictionalization of Allen's personal story, which they must have seen as lacking the drama of the historic events taking place in the country during his White House tenure.

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Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker star in The Butler.

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker lead a star-studded cast in "Lee Daniel's The Butler." — Courtesy The Weinstein Company

We meet Eugene Allen, who is renamed Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels' The Butler (the clunky film title is the result of litigation won by Warner Bros. against Weinstein Company for initially marketing the film as The Butler, the title of a 1916 WB short film), when he is just a young boy (portrayed by child actor Michael Rainey Jr.) working with his parents as slaves on a Georgia cotton plantation.

Whitaker steps into the character when Gaines, in his later teens, flees the plantation and finds work as a domestic in a northern county. From there, he ends up, serendipitously, at the White House.

Whitaker ages 60 years in less than two hours of screen time, making incremental, nuanced adjustments to his facial expressions, his speech and his bearing. His interpretation of servitude on the part of a black man in his position during the '60s and '70s is entirely believable, as are his tender, concerned interactions with his wife, Gloria, a woman brought to life by Winfrey, whose acting chops are still firmly intact.

In real life, Eugene and Helene Allen had only one son, and his personal story is largely unknown. But in Lee Daniels' The Butler, Cecil and Gloria Gaines have two sons.

Louis, played by David Oyelowo, chafes at his father's willingness to hold a subordinate position in white society and rebels, first participating in civil rights protest marches, then figuring as a key player in the Freedom Riders, and, finally, with his Angela Davis-look-alike girlfriend, taking a position of leadership in the Black Panther movement. Charlie (Elijah Kelley), perhaps as an antidote to his brother's rebellion, voluntarily enlists in the military at age 18 and is promptly killed in Vietnam.

While Daniels' intent was obviously to show the turmoil of the times reflected in the butler's personal story, the life trajectories of the two brothers are neither realistic nor believable, with an underlying message that comes off as preachy.

Set that family story in the larger historic context of famous White House occupants played by iconic actors — Robin Williams as President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan — and it all begins to feel over-the-top.

These were important times, and the impact they had on Eugene Allen (or that he had on the events occurring around him), however simple, would seem compelling enough material. Lee Daniels' The Butler would have been a better movie, in the end, had the filmmakers not felt the need to embellish and, odd as it sounds, tried just a little less hard.

Meg Grant is West Coast Editor for AARP The Magazine.

A Faithful Portrayal

Forest Whitaker at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2013. Whitaker stars in The Butler.

Forest Whitaker, 52, ages 60 years as the lead character, Eugene Allen, in "Lee Daniel's The Butler." — Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

To prepare for the title role in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a new movie based on the real-life story of longtime White House maître d’ Eugene Allen, Forest Whitaker drew on insights from a former White House chief usher.

“There’s a code the butlers all have when it comes to the intimate details of the lives of the presidents,” says Whitaker, who won the 2006 best actor Oscar for his portrayal of dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. “Eugene Allen [who served eight presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan] lived that integrity.”

Because his character ages 60 years in two hours of screen time, Whitaker, 52, learned to move in an age-appropriate way. “I wanted to [show] that seamlessly,” he says, “whether being more slumped over or walking more from my knees.”

Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which features an all-star cast, including John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower and Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, is being billed as a historical drama. But Whitaker insists that the film, directed by Lee Daniels, is also the story of how the events of the day affected one family — which, in Allen’s case, included one son and a supportive wife of 65 years, Gloria, played by Oprah Winfrey.

“I loved the relationship I had with Oprah,” Whitaker effuses. “Her work was so centered and emotional. ... It felt like a real marriage.”

Although Whitaker never met Allen, who died in 2010 at the age of 90, he remains in awe of him — and the “opportunity to bring this man to life. That he was behind the scenes and saw so many different presidents make so many different decisions — it’s pretty extraordinary.” — Fannie Weinstein

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