The Butler

The Butler

Director Lee Daniels became a household name with his critically acclaimed film Precious. With The Butler, which is loosely based on the life of real-life White House butler Eugene Allen, Daniels also focuses on the plight of one African-American individual with the civil rights movement as his backdrop.

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker; with Michael Rainey Jr playing young Cecil) is the son of a cotton farm worker (David Banner). After an incident that results in Cecil's father being shot dead, Cecil is taken in by the estate's caretaker (Vanessa Redgrave) and becomes a servant. Throughout the years, Cecil advances in the career as a black servant. Meanwhile, he meets the love of his life, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and together they have two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelly).

Through a series of events, Cecil is hired to become a butler at the White House during the Eisenhower (Robin Williams) administration. Under the supervision of head butler Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr.), Cecil begins to blossom. As he focuses more and more on his job, his home life with Gloria and his sons, especially Louis, suffers. After Louis goes off to college as Fisk, he joins a student group and eventually drops out of school and become actively involved in the civil rights movement. This puts a huge strain on his relationship with Cecil, who pride himself as someone who serves his Presidents and country, not fight against them.

Cecil and Louis become estranged, and Gloria turns to the bottle as their family falls apart. Meanwhile, the civil rights movement heats up, and Cecil secretly fears of his son's safety. While having all the insider knowledge, Cecil feels like an outsider as he has no voice, and his loyalty to his employer is at odds with what he feels is right for his people. All this comes to a head during the Reagan administration, and Cecil has a decision to make.

Forest Whitaker (The Last Stand) has always been a solid, fantastic, understated actor. In the role of  Cecil Gaines, Whitaker exercises his restraint and grace and personifies the butler with dignity and a constant sense of conflict and struggle. Whitaker should be commended for his subtle portrayal, never rising above a certain level of camp and overt drama.

Oprah Winfrey (Beloved) once again reminds us that she is first and foremost an actress, not just a personality. While perhaps not the greatest actress alive, Winfrey holds her own next to Whitaker, and her portrayal of a conflicted wife and mother is affecting. David Oyelowo (Lincoln) is also excellent as Cecil's deviant, headstrong son who is so idealistic that sometimes you want to smack him in the head, while admiring his courage and conviction.

The supporting cast is like a who's who in modern black film history. Mariah Carey (Precious) proves that Precious was no fluke for her, and we can all forget about the atrocious Glitters. Cuba Gooding Jr. (Don Jon) is somewhat typecast as the sassymouthed Carter, but Lenny Kravitz (The Hunger Games) is the strong, silent type as fellow butler James. Terrence Howard (Dead Man Down) is also solid as Cecil's philandering neighbor, who carries on a brief affair with Gloria.

The Presidents and their wives are also a who's who list of veteran actors: Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, James Marsden as Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as LBJ, and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald and Nancy Reagan respectively.

While the acting in general is good, I feel that the screenplay by Danny Strong (The Hunger Games), and Daniels' direction are rather heavy-handed when it comes to the civil rights movement, as if they want to cover as much ground as possible. What comes off is a more like a history lesson than drama, and at times I feel that the material strains to be relevant in parallel to Cecil's life story. Also, the drama is now shifted from Cecil's fascinating career as a White House butler (we yearn to see more interactions and insider drama with the Presidents, the First Ladies and the White House staff) to street drama of violence and injustice.

Don't get me wrong, black history is important and this serves as a good reflection of what African-Americans had to endure in the past 50 years, long after Americans fought in the Civil War. Still, as a drama, the backdrop history takes center stage. At times I feel that Louis Gaines is the true protagonist of this story, as Cecil is by and large passive and reactive. And yet we don't get the full scope of Louis's story either. So what we can is a hybrid that feels more like a lesson in Black History (and a who's who list of Black leaders) than a biopic. At the end, I wasn't moved because the story feels too preachy and academic, instead of personal and intimate.

Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Mariah Carey, Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard
Director: Lee Daniels
Writers: Danny Strong (based on Wil Haygood's article)
Distributor: Wienstein Company
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, language, sexual content and thematic material
Running Time: 132 minutes


Script - 6
Performance - 8
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 8
Editing - 7
Production - 7

Total - 7.5 out of 10.0 

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