Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Director: Lee Daniels
Screenwriter: Danny Strong, Lee Daniels
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, David Oyelowo, Robin Williams, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, John Cusack
The Weinstein Company
Rated PG-13 | 113 Minutes
Release Date: August 16, 2013
Directed by Lee Daniels (Precious), The Butler stars Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, a White House butler who serves eight U.S. presidents from 1952 to 1986. Over the course of 30 years, he witnesses — and becomes involved in — the political and social turmoil of the times.
Inspired by Wil Haygood‘s Washington Post article, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is based on the true story of White House butler Eugene Allen and his family, portrayed in the film by Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, and Elijah Kelley. The film also stars Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan.
The Butler feels like a Greatest Hits of Best Picture winners like Driving Miss Daisy, Forrest Gump, and The King’s Speech that borrows bits and pieces from similar films like The Help and Lee Daniels’ own 2009 film, Precious. Sentimental, melodramatic, and just a tad heavy-handed, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is run-of-the-mill Oscar bait, a period piece biopic that takes the audience on a crash course through American history, focusing on an underdog who interacts with historical figures and lives through all the things we read about in Social Studies class.
Not to say The Butler isn’t a good film – because it is – but you’ve seen this movie before, and you’ll see it again, because it’s the kind of Triumph in the Face of Ignorance and Adversity™ family drama that resonates with audiences (and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) – it’s like Remember the Titans but with tea pouring and table setting instead of football.
The film is filled with great performances, but like The Last King of Scotland, the only thing memorable about Lee Daniels’ movie is Forest Whitaker, who starts out as a house slave in the South before getting called up to D.C. to serve President Eisenhower. Things get complicated when the Civil Rights Movement picks up steam; his oldest son (Oyelowo) participates in sit-ins and marches alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. before joining the Black Panther Party while his youngest son, Charlie (Kelley), goes off to fight the war in Vietnam.
Then there’s Oprah Winfrey. It’s hard to separate Oprah the Actress from Oprah the TV Show Host but Winfrey delivers a fine performance as Gloria Gaines, Whitaker’s on-screen wife who has a brief dalliance with alcoholism (and Terrence Howard). This is Oprah’s best performance since The Color Purple, worthy of a Best Supporting Actress nomination – though she’ll have her work cut out for her going against Meryl Streep in August: Osage County.
Though it’s typical, Lee Daniels’ The Butler manages to be an emotionally affecting film; strong performances overcome an underwhelming script that, like the film’s protagonist, doesn’t want to rock the boat. While it is an earnest film filled with good intentions, The Butler is ultimately manipulative, melodramatic fluff – a Best Picture contender if there ever was one.
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