Director: Lee Daniels
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding, Jr. Terrence Howard
Director Lee Daniels has lined up one hell of an ensemble for his latest movie. The movie is a who’s who of Oscar winners and heavy hitters. Do not let the trailer fool you; the story is more about the butler’s family than all the presidents the butler worked for. As a young boy, Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) grew up working as a field servant and a house servant on a cotton field. When he is old enough to leave that volatile environment, he gets taken in by a restaurant manager who realizes he is in need of help. He takes him under his wing and teaches him the proper etiquette to be a waiter and butler. After twenty years of serving the guests of the Excelsior Hotel, Cecil’s extraordinary service gets noticed. He gets a call from the White House to work as a butler under President Eisenhower (Robin Williams). For someone from his background, this was an opportunity that only dreams were made of. Cecil would go on to work for each president from the Eisenhower administration through Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman).
The film centers around the Gaines family and how they deal with the shift in equality for an African American family from the years of the Civil Rights Movement to the eventual run of the first African American president. Cecil’s work in the White House provides support for his wife Gloria (Winfrey) and sons Louis (Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelly). Louis grows up to take his life into a different direction by fighting for equality. Much to his parents dismay for his safety, he joins the Freedom Riders, becomes a member of Martin Luther King’s inner circle, and later joins the Black Panthers. Charlie decides to head into battle in Vietnam. Gloria has trouble coping and dealing with the fact her husband is never home and the lives of her sons are always in jeopardy. Cecil remains devoted and faithful to her throughout the years despite some of the choices she makes in dealing with her depression.
Whenever I see “inspired by a true story” in the credits, I translate that to mean that the idea for the film may be based on a real person, but the majority of the story and its characters are fictitious and made-up for dramatic purposes. The screenplay by Emmy winner Danny Strong (Game Change) is adapted from a Washington Post article called, “A Butler Well Served by This Election” by Wil Haygood. The character of Cecil Gaines is based on Eugene Allen who served under eight presidents from Truman to Reagan. He had a wife, one son, and the ending of the movie is similar to the events in Allen’s life, but other than that, the majority of the film is fictional. Some may feel like the film is a choppy Cliff Notes storyline of the history of each of these presidents. I disagree as Strong’s idea to turn the movie into a family story grounds the film and makes it more humane in tone without feeling like a boring special on the History Channel.
Some of the casting may seem a bit gimmicky like having Robin Williams play Eisenhower or John Cusack play Richard Nixon. Surprisingly enough, the majority of the casting works pretty well. The trailer makes it look like they have supporting roles, but many are glorified cameos in one or two scenes. Cusack may not look like Nixon, but he does have the voice down. Many of these actors (Gooding, Kravitz, Carey, Cusack, and Oyelowo) have appeared in Daniels’ other films. If only Jane Fonda could have been in more of the movie as Nancy Reagan. She is quite good in the five minutes we see her. The real standouts are Whitaker, Winfrey, and Oyelowo. It is a bummer that many people forget Winfrey is quite a talented actress. I do not think she or others give her the credit she deserves. Gloria is by no means an easy walk-on role. It is even more impressive as this is her first film in fifteen years since 1998’s Beloved. Winfrey and Whitaker stretch themselves vocally and physically to age their characters at an appropriate pace in the sixty years the film spans. Kudos to the hair and make-up team for their work at aging those characters as well as their work on the other historical figures.
With only four movies under his belt, Lee Daniels is growing as a director. He makes interesting choices with his projects and casting decisions. I do not feel like he is ever playing it completely safe. His ideas may not always work out, but I appreciate his approach and outlook as a filmmaker. Precious was an intense film that packs a punch, but it is a one-time-only film for me. The Paperboy, unfortunately, was a bit of a muddled mess. Lee Daniels’ The Butler may get a bit sentimental for audiences looking for a more historical to-the-point look at the time period. Again, I disagree. Daniels gets fantastic performances out of his cast and keeps the pace going swiftly despite all of the ground he is trying to cover. Strong’s screenplay is sharp enough without ever feeling too “let’s feel sorry for the characters”. There are plenty of good laughs, times you’ll be embarrassed by history, and times you will cheer for the Gaines family. I saw it with a packed house and there were numerous audible reactions along the way.
The movie is definitely aiming for some Oscar gold here. You’ve got your inspirational storyline, historical setting and timeline, stand-out performances, and Oscar winning cast members. We shall see if it is still remembered come voting season. It is produced by The Weinstein Company who love to campaign hard for their movies. Like Fruitvale Station, I think it is another important film to see to remind us of how far we have come regarding equality in this country.
RATING: **** 1/2 (4.5 out of 5 stars)