Forest Whitaker as the Butler who served eight presidents has an affect deficit. I couldn’t get into his character – or care about him. He is an asshole to his family for most of his life (he mellows with age), and at work stands around being (justifiably) bummed. Late in his career, the Butler does succeed in achieving pay equity for black White House staff after many years of being rebuffed. Whitaker does a good job playing a lifetime of ages, but that’s not enough to justify the $6 senior rate I paid at my local cinema. Oprah Winfrey isn’t half-bad, but much of the movie she is only asked to be tearful or drunk.
The son of the Butler, played by David Oyelowo, is arguably the most dynamic character. He goes South to become involved in the civil rights movement against his parents’ wishes, and he and his girlfriend seem to be present in every single significant moment – the lunch counter, the burned out Freedom Riders bus, the hotel meeting with MLK before he was assassinated, the birth of the Black Panther Movement (which is depicted as a murderous group when in fact they were the victims of terrible violence at the hands of the authorities), the anti-apartheid movement, and more. It was hard to swallow.
The movie ends with the retired Butler’s meeting with President Obama. None of it reached my heart or my mind. There was nothing new, inventive, or stimulating. The true story of this man’s life is potentially great material but this script lacked emotion. If you’re going to see it, check out the list of stars (Lenny Kravitz, Vanessa Redgrave, Melissa Leo, and many more) before you walk in so that it’s fresh in your mind and at least you can play the matching game for distraction.