Lee Daniels’ The Butler Review
by Daniel Rester
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is the latest film to power a large-scaled story about the turbulent times of the civil rights movement by using the life of a unique African American to frame the story. In Butler’s case, the person is Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a fictionalized version of Eugene Allen. Allen worked for 34 years in the White House, eventually becoming the head butler there and gaining the respect of many. While Butler milks its “based on a true story” labeling, the central story of Allen, or in this case Gaines, is remarkable.
Gaines is shown as growing up on a cotton farm, witnessing the murder of his father by an angry white man. He then becomes a house servant, and soon moves on to the city for better work. With his skills and lack of presented interest in politics, Gaines gets noticed by the higher-ups and is then employed as a butler at the White House. Gaines works alongside butlers Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz), and he serves multiple presidents during his employment.
On the home front, Gaines has a wife and two sons. His wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), stands by her man through the years despite offers of infidelity and the aggravations that come with her husband working a lot. One of their sons, Charlie (Elijah Kelley), becomes interested in the Vietnam War, while their other son, Louis (David Oyelowo), becomes a freedom rider and eventual Black Panther member.
From its ads, Butler seems like it’s mostly just Oscar-bait, replete with a large cast, a “true story,” and big emotions. Well, it contains these things, but it works, containing less superficiality than similar-seeming films like The Blind Side (2009) and The Help (2011). It has its share of melodrama and hokiness, but the film’s strengths make such things forgivable.
Three of the biggest strengths are the three central performances given by Whitaker, Winfrey, and Oyelowo. Whitaker gives one of the best performances of his career as Gaines, often underplaying and showing restraint perfectly; he also applies the right touch of emotion in key dramatic scenes. Winfrey also shines alongside Whitaker, though her sad and alcoholic character is a somewhat showy part. But Oyelowo is perhaps the best, giving a level of pain and fierceness to Louis that really stands out. The actor never overplays, and he remains believable throughout.
The rest of the cast is also impressive for the most part, with the main supporting players doing very well. It’s nice to see Gooding, Jr. and Kravitz having a good time in the more comedic roles, while James Marsden, Live Schreiber, and Alan Rickman are entertaining as JFK, LBJ, and Ronald Reagan, respectively. Less effective are the many other star-filled parts, with Robin Williams, Melissa Leo, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Mariah Carey, Terrence Howard, Alex Pettyfer, and Vanessa Redgrave all popping up in bit roles. The constant cameo appearances become distracting after a while, taking away some of credibility of the presentation.
Daniels expertly handles the story, seamlessly mixing in real footage with his displays of drama. But problems dwell in Danny Strong’s screenplay. The script, and film, covers a lot of ground, but by the end the results seem more simplistic than ambitious; Strong just seems to touch all of the basic plates in his storytelling approaches. Yet Daniels and Strong do well enough in actually giving some gut-wrenching moments in showing social issues on a widespread plain.
The music by Rodrigo Leao is laid on thick and helps smash subtlety, but some of the other technical areas are fine. Most notable is the makeup work by Kellie Robinson, LeDiedra Richard-Baldwin, and myriad assistants; the actors playing the presidents look strange at times, but the main characters all age believably in the story. Also splendid is the work by Cinematographer Andrew Dunn (though some shots seem too washed-out in appearance), Editor Joe Klotz, and Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter.
Butler is a crowd-pleasing film that may get the many Oscar nominations that it seems to desire. In some cases, those nominations would be deservedly given; in others, not so much. In reality, Butler would have probably worked better as a mini-series — so that it could have spent more time diving deeper into various parts of Gaines’ life. But Whitaker and some other aspects do make it worthwhile as a film experience.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B+).