Inspired by (but not the real) true story, Forest Whitaker stars as Cecil Gaines – a server hired to work at The White House in 1957. He had a long, hard struggle growing up in the South on a cotton farm and escaping violence to move up North and start a new life, so he’s very appreciative of this job and the life it affords him, his wife (Oprah Winfrey) and his children.
However, as African-Americans struggle with racism and violent reactions to the Civil Rights movement, a rift has emerged between Cecil and his oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo).
Director Lee Daniels and writer Danny Strong (based on the article by Wil Haygood) present The Butler (or Lee Daniels’ The Butler as they are legally required to call it) as a complex journey through the Civil Rights movement, more than having the film as the stand alone story of one man.
Because of this, The Butler (or Lee Daniels’ The Butler as the lawyers want to remind us we have to call it) is overembellished to make it feel grander and of a greater scope, which is forced and contrived. It’s like everyone involved is almost too scared to let this be a simpler story about a good man facing adversity, so they have to pump and puff it up with more.
Earlier in the week, I heard a joke about how this could be an African-American version of Forrest Gump, and that joke rings even more true after I saw Forrest Gump on TV the other night.
We are left to believe that the Gaines family was at the center of every major moment in American history from 1957 to 2008. This takes away from the realism of the film.
Cecil is in The Oval Office as President Eisenhower (Robin Williams) decides whether or not to send troops to force the integration of schools.
Louis is at the hotel when Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated.
Cecil is in the room when President Reagan (Alan Rickman) is discussing sanctions against South Africa.
Louis is one of those who takes a stool at the counter to protest segregated seating in restaurants.
Forrest is the one who calls the police when he sees people breaking into The Watergate (you get the idea).
I was almost ready for Cecil to be bringing Forrest Gump some soda pop during one of his many visits to The White House.
However, The Butler (or Lee Daniels’ The Butler as I should call it to avoid a nasty call from the lawyers), contains some fantastic performances that more than make up for the faults in storytelling and literary license. Whitaker delivers a great understated performance full of amazing nuance and overt mastery. Without a bunch of melodramatic, scene chewing turns, we see Cecil as a hardworking man who is proud of his accomplishments, full of fear for his son and troubled about the possible loss of the life he has built. He also fills Cecil with fierce determination, great dignity and tangible sorrow.
Meanwhile, Oyelowo is a force for righteousness, and the problems we see between father and son are heartfelt because he can make the issues more personal instead of trite and formulaic. I know plenty of people are buzzing about an Oscar nomination for Oprah, but Oyelowo delivers more for the Oscar crowd than she does. Oprah is solid and quite good at the right moments with a character who struggles with alcohol, temptation and more, but nothing makes you fall out of your seat and wonder at virtuosity.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler (the lawyers wore me down) is still one of the better movies of the summer, but, upon seeing it, you realize it was released in the summer as an Oscar contender, because it won’t be an Oscar contender in November.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking