Lee Daniels’ The Butler Review
by Nick Casaletto
As we dawn down on this summer movie season, the inevitable Oscar season is following in its footsteps. We replace action, superheroes, and explosions with great dialogue, great performances, and, usually, great stories. Last week I had the privilege of going to the IFC New England premier of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a film where, when I first saw the trailer, I was honestly skeptical about. The cast looked great, the story looked moving, and Daniels clearly had a vision of the story he wanted to tell. However, it seemed like “Oscar Bait” to a tee — a film depicting a minority’s struggle in past society is a recipe for Oscar gold, or so we think.
The film is the true life story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who grew up as a slave. A man who left the cotton fields and persued a career in serving the upper class for a living. Throughout time you see Gaines’ true passion for serving; he truly loved what he did, which was present through Whitaker’s stellar performance. You eventually see Gaines achieve what he once thought was impossible, being a server at the White House.
Cecil was living a life that, sadly, not too many African Americans were living at the time. He had a great job, two children, and a wife he loved very much, played outstandingly by none other than Oprah Winfrey. From there, we see how he impacted the lives of such iconic figures in America as John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), Richard Nixon (John Cusack), and Ronald Regan (Alan Rickman).
If there is one word, in my humble opinion, that would describe Lee Daniels’ The Butler, it would be inconsistent. Now that is not to say I disliked the film, which would be false. I am simply stating that the tone, feel, and general message of the film seemed rather disjointed at times. It all seemed way too familiar and way too melodramatic for its dark source material. We get pure, raw, and emotional scenes, with outstanding acting. These scenes seemed too forced in my opinion, not earning the emotional weight they were trying to convey.
The few emotional scenes that did work, worked in spades. There is a father and son moment towards the end of the film that even brought a tear to my eye. What separated this scene from the rest of the film is the old saying “actions speak louder than words.” The two actors say nothing, just use facial expressions, and it was truly mesmerizing. The scene was earned and so well executed. I wish the rest of the film was more like that scene, as it would have worked in its favor.
For the most part, the performances all around are outstanding. Whitaker is better than ever as the iconic butler. He is genuine, real, and believable. Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terrance Howard are gold as the friends of Cecil, who helped turn him into the man he eventually became. They add a much needed comedic sub-tone to the melodrama that was present through most of the film. James Marsden plays Kennedy outstandingly, nailing the voice and presence of the 35th U.S. President. However, the standout performance for me was actually Winfrey. She had so many layers to her troubled character, really nailing the disturbed, alcoholic, and yet loving mother she was. I have personally never seen Oprah act before, nor knew she could, and she knocked it out of the park. The rest of the performances are decent enough, yet not great enough to mention. They were just kind of there to move the story along.
Now this could be me nitpicking, yet I am a true fan of film so that is inevitable sometimes. The overall look of the film felt way too cinematic for my taste. It looked glossy, fresh, digital, and very much so like a movie. Now, I know what you’re thinking, it is in fact a movie! I know this. However, the tone of the film did not match with the glossy cinematography. The way scenes were set up seemed so formulaic and traditional — nothing was new, fresh, or exciting. Lee Daniels’ past Oscar-nominated Precious had this real dark and gritty feel to it that really captivated you into this world he was trying to convey on the screen. In this one, it felt like I was reading a script in Scriptwriting 101. It was a well-done screenplay, don’t get me wrong, it was just by-the-books, formulaic, and traditional.
It may seem like I disliked this film, but I didn’t. I was just hoping for something more than what I watched. Nothing was terribly bad and nothing was terribly good either, minus a few performances. The direction was fine, the cinematography was fine, and the story was excellent. I feel like this is a great film to show in history classes, as the story is extremely powerful in itself. It is a story not very well-known by the public, sadly, and would provide great information about someone who truly made a difference in an important age of politics. Films about minorities overcoming obstacles in the age of racism and slavery are getting more popular within recent years. The story here is told well, with a great message by the end of it. I just don’t think that Lee Daniels’ The Butler will be taking home any awards this Oscar Season.
Final Grade: B-