The story of former White House butler Eugene Allen, fictionalised as Cecil Gaines here and played by Forest Whitaker. Cecil grew up rather harshly in the 20s on a cotton farm where his supposedly ‘crazy’ mother (Mariah Carey) was raped by the evil plantation owner, who then killed his father right in front of the boy. Matriarch Vanessa Redgrave takes kindly on the boy (or just flat out hates what her son did) and takes him out of the fields and inside the house to work as a servant. Eventually a teenage Cecil leaves the farm, and hooks up with a wiser, older hotel butler (Clarence Williams III) who teaches him the tricks of the trade. Cecil even ends up marrying a hotel maid (Oprah Winfrey) before getting his big break as a White House butler, starting under President Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams) and working all the way up to Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman!). In the latter half of the film, David Oyelowo plays Cecil’s son Louis, who becomes interested in social activism that at times puts him at odds with his father, who doesn’t like to rock the boat. Meanwhile, lonely wife Winfrey becomes needy and frequently drunk. Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. play a sleazy neighbour and one of Gaines’ fellow butlers, who becomes somewhat of an uncle figure to Cecil. The other political figures seen in the film include JFK (James Marsden), LBJ (Liev Schreiber!), Richard Nixon (John Cusack!), and Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda!!), whilst Lenny Kravitz plays another butler and Nelsan Ellis is Martin Luther King Jr.
Seriously lumpy and featuring some distractingly awful stunt casting, this 2013 film from director Lee Daniels (“Precious”, which I found pretty indigestible, and the not much better “The Paperboy”) and screenwriter Danny Strong (“Game Change”) gets by on a solid lead performance by Forest Whitaker, and a helluva story. A fictionalised version of the story of former White House butler Eugene Allen, the thing that worried me going into this film was that it was a story about, basically, a subservient African-American, and also I worried that like “Driving Miss Daisy” (a film I actually like, don’t get me wrong) it would be more about the white ‘master’ than the African-American character. Well, full credit to Daniels and Strong, they convinced me that this story indeed deserved to be told, and the white characters ultimately stayed in the background. At the end of the day, there is merit in this story, as it gives us a tour of the societal changes in America throughout the decades.
Especially interesting is the way the film depicts the title character’s rather subservient job opposed to his son’s radical activist activities, and manages to show us that both of these stories, both of these points of view are valid. The film uses the character of Martin Luther King Jr. (played by Nelsan Ellis) to give the title character and his brethren the respect, dignity and importance they deserve. They, like the militant activists are all a part of the African-American societal change experience, and the butlers and servants do their part by showing a strong work ethic at the very least, especially considering Gaines’ harsh upbringing.
The filmmakers have a tricky balance on their hands, but ultimately they win out. If it weren’t for the awful stunt casting, it’d be an even stronger film. Chief among the worst stunt casting is the parade of name actors playing various American Presidents. Of them, the only good casting choice was James Marsden as JFK. He’s always had the Kennedy good looks and has a pretty easy time of it in the role. He was born to play JFK in a film, if you ask me (I’ve read that Matthew McConaughey was originally cast but dropped out. That was a disaster thankfully averted. I mean, McConaughey doing JFK’s accent? I shudder at the thought). Robin Williams looked a bit like Teddy Roosevelt in the “Night at the Museum” movies, but here he’s playing Dwight D. Eisenhower, and whilst some have said that he’s a laughable casting choice, he gets away with it for me for one main reason: Of all the Presidents here, Eisenhower’s is inarguably the least known in terms of image and voice. I have no idea what he looked or sounded like, and simply judged Williams work as a performance free of any preconceptions. In that respect, he’s OK, if unremarkable. Americans and/or US history buffs have every right to disagree, though.
But the rest? Yikes. The absolute worst is unquestionably John Cusack as Richard Frigging Nixon. Yes, I know his middle name was Milhouse but today it’s Frigging. John Cusack doesn’t look anything like Nixon, doesn’t sound anything like Nixon, and spends his every minute of his screen time here looking, sounding, and acting like he knows he is miscast. He’s so poorly chosen for the role that he rivals Paul Newman stinking it up as a Mexican bandit in “The Outrage” and Sir Anthony Hopkins’ Marlon Brando impersonation as “Nixon”. Hell, Hopkins at least looked a little more like Nixon than Cusack does. I guess you could commend him for eschewing the caricatured Nixon gibbering voice, which he likely would’ve screwed up anyway, but instead he plays him like a shifty Lloyd Dobbler. Not good enough, not good enough at all (I would’ve cast “24” co-star Gregory Itzin myself). I must say, though, that the depiction of Nixon as a character isn’t uninteresting. Although we all know he’s one of the least popular US Presidents of all-time, at first he seems somewhat well-intentioned here, and it’s only once paranoia sets in that things start to turn. It’s certainly a more balanced presentation of the character than in the all-paranoia-all-the-time “Nixon”.
Liev Schreiber is immediately way too thin to play LBJ, and all I could think was: Why not find whatever cave in Canada Randy Quaid and his crazy star-whacker family are holed up in and throw the Emmy Award winner a bone? He’s already played the role before and is probably the right age to play it again without makeup or anything (He certainly has the jowls and big nose for it). It’s not an embarrassing turn by Schreiber, but it’s not a particularly convincing one either and there must’ve been so many more convincing casting options out there than Schreiber, surely (Tom Wilkinson? Character actor Nick Searcy would’ve been ideal I think). And did we really need to see LBJ on the crapper and using the ‘N’ word constantly? That was so undignified and unnecessary I thought, though he was the guy who gave African-Americans the vote, interestingly. Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan…oh boy. Even those of you who give Cusack a mulligan surely have to agree that Rickman is a whole lotta awkward here. He looks a tad more like Reagan than Cusack as Nixon, but his performance as the craggy-faced actor-turned-President is horribly constipated and unconvincing. I also think it’s unfair that Reagan cops the majority of Daniels’ and Strong’s criticism here, painting him as pretty uncaring, really (LBJ may have been fond of the n-word but at least he did what he could for civil rights, at least as depicted here). I’m no Reagan fan by a long shot and there’s a lot to dislike about his Conservative politics, but boy do they heap it on him in this one, you’d swear he was George Dubya Bush.
It’s not just in the Presidents that the stunt casting is problematic, however. Some might not see Oprah Winfrey as stunt casting here, and sure she’s done good work before (She’s the only thing I like about Spielberg’s “The Colour Purple”), but cast as the wife of Forest Whitaker…awkward. The scenes of her playing kissy-face with Whitaker, who is seven years her junior and looks even more than that, are very hard to watch. It made me feel dirty, even though seven years shouldn’t be that much of an issue. The bigger issue is that at no point did I sense the character, it was all Oprah all of the time. It was because it was Oprah, that I felt icky, more than anything else. And she wanted an Oscar nomination for this, you could feel it in every scene. No dice, Oprah, there’s nothing special about her performance at all, except it’s really uncomfortable to watch. Jane Fonda meanwhile, is hilariously cast as Nancy Reagan. I’m not going to say she doesn’t look much like her, I just couldn’t get past the fact that Hanoi Jane was cast as Nancy Reagan. If it was an in-joke, then well played. If not, it’s really distracting, albeit only a small role. It’s the very definition of distracting stunt casting, because instead of paying attention to the performance you’re guessing the motivation behind the stunt casting. Also distracting for me was Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr. as one of Forest Whitaker’s fellow butlers. He’s meant to be the least socially conscious, happy-go-lucky of the butlers, but the way Gooding portrays the character, it comes dangerously close to reminding you of his Stepin Fetchit-ish routine in “Lightning Jack”. Gooding can be a charismatic and entertaining, lively actor but I think the combination of him and the character he is playing works against every other representation of African-Americans in this film. Part of that is intentional, as he’s meant to be the most laidback and fun-loving, maybe naïve of the characters, but Gooding’s performance pushes that uncomfortably over the edge. Basically the film’s comic relief, he’s not shuffling and all ‘Yessah, Massah!’ but he’s a lot more Stepin Fetchit than Malcolm X, that’s for sure.
One piece of stunt casting that does work is singer Mariah Carey as the title character’s mother. The biracial actress doesn’t say a word but she’s not only reasonably credible to play such an ethnicity, she’s also perfectly cast as a crazy woman, and isn’t around long enough to prove herself unable to act anyway. And I say that as someone who loves her voice, by the way. So kudos there, Mr. Daniels. I also liked the performances by Vanessa Redgrave and Clarence Williams III, in small but pivotal roles. Redgrave’s character is really interesting because she’s obviously a well-meaning woman, but she also uses the N-word and her idea of helping is to put someone in a subservient role inside the house, rather than out in the fields. But that’s the way things were back then, shameful but true, and for her time the Redgrave character was probably seen as pretty progressive. Williams is a sometimes electrifying actor, and here he’s excellent as the title character’s mentor who hates the N-word. Everyone should hate it if you ask me. It was also good to see the talented but erratic Terrence Howard well-cast and giving a good showing. He’s a talented guy, but not always someone who makes the best career choices. He certainly makes for a convincing sleaze.
But at the end of the day, this is Forest Whitaker’s film, and he gives an excellent, restrained performance. He’s a genuine talent when he wants to be, and I wish that were more often instead of stupid missteps like “Battlefield Earth”, “Pret-a-Porter”, “Freelancers”, and “Street Kings”. This may at first seem like a film that reminds one too much of painful and unfortunate racial stereotypes. But if you stick with it, you realise that there’s something far more intelligent and worthy going on here. It gives us an interesting POV of American history throughout the years, and a view of the African-American experience throughout those years. It also has a truly touching father-son story that might just get a tear or two out of you. It gives equal respect to those on the activist and social change side of things, but also those like the title character who perhaps haven’t always been given their due. It’s a tricky balance but through the characters of Cecil and Louis Gaines, we realise that without both of these types of African-American people, we might not have eventually seen Barack Obama. Yes, Obama seems to have disappointed a great many during his presidency, but that does not in any way diminish the power and importance of that moment when he was elected. It was a proud moment for all humanity, and by including this event in the film, whether it’s true to the real story or not (I have no idea if the real guy was still alive when Obama was elected), it enriches the rest of the film as it is indeed enriched by the rest of the film. It says it all, really.
This is a lumpy film with some really unfortunate casting choices and uneven performances. But there’s something genuinely of merit and power here, it’s not the awkward “Driving Miss Daisy” film you might expect. Whitaker is excellent in the lead, and the film certainly ain’t boring. It just could’ve and should’ve been even better (And should’ve featured Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford- WTF?).