Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr.
Written by: Danny Strong (HBO’s “Game Change”)
Directed by: Lee Daniels (“Precious”)
An effective drama led by a star-studded cast, “The Butler” shows the history, struggles, and triumphs of the civil rights movement through the lifespan of a White House butler.
After growing up on a cotton field where his father was killed and mother was sexually assaulted, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) grows up and decides he wants more out of life. After impressing the right people while serving drinks at a fancy hotel, Gaines is hired to be a butler at the White House. Though he loves his job, family life isn’t always easy with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) upset with him always being gone and his son Louis, (David Oyelowo) a civil rights activist, embarrassed of his fathers’ profession. Through the years as butler under several presidencies, the film chronicles the struggles of African Americans not only in the White House, but across the South in their fight for civil rights.
The film serves as a nice return to form for Whitaker, who has been far from critical praise since his Best Actor Oscar win in 2006. He is able to give life to his age-spanning character and does so with great personality. Much will be made of Winfrey’s return to acting, though her role was simply average in the grand scheme of things. The rest of the film is rounded out by a rather large list of supporting actors, the best of which is Oyelowo. He does a great job of butting heads with Whitaker, proving to be the strongest character relationship in the film. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz are also standouts from the cast, providing the comic relief in the film. As impressive as the list of presidents is, none of them truly make a lasting impact other than very brief moments of decent impersonations.
The decision to make the film essentially a journey through the civil rights movement using Gaines’ tenure as a butler through multiple presidential administrations as a framing device is largely a successful one. Through this format, Daniels is able to tell a few stories at once, balancing between the historical facts of the civil rights movement and a struggle between a father and son. The latter plotline, which is entirely fabricated compared to the real life story of Eugene Allen, is where the film cannot avoid stepping into melodrama. While the relationship between Gaines and his son Louis is executed nicely, it is far too convenient to create a character that just so happens to be at multiple events through the civil rights era.
Through interviews, it has been clear that Daniels had to tone down “The Butler” in order to secure a PG-13 rating. It’s especially clear in the film, as the audio jarringly drops out of a couple of scenes including during the punch line of a joke from Gooding, Jr. and an f-bomb or two. It’s understandable, considering how much more difficult it is to get an R-rated film out to a wide audience, but perhaps it would have been preferable for Daniels to be unflinching with a film that covers the ugliness of the civil rights movement.
Much of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” teeters the line of hokey, Oscar-baiting moments and legitimately intriguing storytelling and an accurate portrayal of the struggles of black Americans. Daniels takes liberties with the real life story of Allen to inject more drama into his film, but is surprisingly able to bring in the reigns and tap dance around melodrama for the most part. For every moment that feels contrived, there is another that is earned, and through the strength of its more powerful moments and excellent ensemble performance “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” prospers.