First Hit: Some of the performances were outstanding while others were miscast and poor.
I do not like the ego of directors or writers who name their film with their name as part of the title. This film was originally called "The Butler" and now it is called and marketed as “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”.
I’m sure there are reasons why, but for me it taints a films’ integrity. Why? Because it means that the director (in this case) views himself as or more important than the film itself.
The best thing about this film was viewing changes in the civil rights movement through Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) life. Where he watched his mother being abused by the slave owner, his father shot by saying something about it to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and finally a black man being elected President of the United States. How it was portrayed by Whitaker, David Oyelowo, and Oprah Winfrey was excellent.
What didn’t work about this film? The representation of the Presidents Cecil served during his time in the White House. This is a great story about how a man learned how to serve with great strength of character and gained respect for his service and being of service. Although his home life was hard at times with his wife being an alcoholic and his oldest son becoming a radical of the sixties with the Black Panthers, he persevered these things as well as losing his youngest son in Vietnam and through it all he continued to be an honorable man.
Whitaker is wonderful and electric in this role. Winfrey is difficult to watch at the beginning because it is hard to separate Oprah from the role. If she acted more, she would be able to have the audience transcend her television persona more easily because she is a very good actress. Oyelowo is absolutely great as Whitaker’s son. Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower didn’t capture Dwight’s pace or energy. John Cusack did get the creepiness of Nixon but paled as the film moved on. James Marsden seemed more like Bobby Kennedy than John F. Kennedy. Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson was pathetic. Alan Rickman was slightly worse than Schreiber as Ronald Reagan. However, I though Jane Fonda was a priceless and fabulous choice as Nancy Reagan – she caught the look, feel and ways of Nancy. Danny Strong wrote a good script. Lee Daniels got good performances from some actors but the choice of others for their roles was very weak.
Overall: The real story got slightly demeaned by the actors chosen to be Presidents.