(Photo: The Weinstein Company)
Summary: Based on the true story of Eugene Allen, Lee Daniels’ The Butler follows Cecil Gaines, who served eight presidents at the White House throughout the most transformative times in American history. Through Cecil’s family, we learn of his struggles, which parallel America’s triumphs.
Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler officially makes Oscar nominee Lee Daniels a Hollywood star. With an all-star cast, a PG-13 rating and an accessible storyline, the Precious director has gone Hollywood in the best way. The film screams Tinseltown royalty from Jane Fonda to Cuba Gooding, Jr. to Forest Whitaker to Robin Williams — all of whom are Oscar winners. Plus, the film has the star power of Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, David Banner and Oprah Winfrey. Daniels wove together a cast that viewers want to see on screen with a story they will love. Mainly sweet and rarely bitter, it’s easily one of the best films of the year and set to be an awards favorite — deservingly so. Lee Daniels’ The Butler is intense, emotional and stays with you long after the credits roll.
The Butler begins with narration from Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines. We learn of his heartbreaking roots, working on a cotton-field in Georgia. Plus, his “house n—-r” training and eventually his own family with Gloria (played by soon-to-be two-time Oscar nominee Oprah Winfrey) and his two sons, played by Elijah Kelley and David Oyelowo. Written by Danny Strong, The Butler cleverly presents the Black family unit within the struggles of the husband and wife, and father and son. The script is clunky at times — packing in eight presidents is a huge task — but Strong found the perfect balance of the family as too many films about the Black family are the extremes of either downtrodden poverty or upper-class perfection.
Whitaker as Gaines is equally subtle and powerful. Daniels and Strong show not all African-Americans wanted to fight, some did not want to rock the boat, such as Gaines. On the other hand, Gaines’ son is a revolutionary, embarrassed by his father while his father is complexly ashamed of him. There is a nuanced story in The Butler, but the root of family helps the film rise above race and politics.
Forest Whitaker is, as usual, cinematic perfection. But all eyes are on Lady O, who hasn’t been on the big screen in over 15 years. Some critics are praising Ms. Winfrey for becoming someone else. However, I was more impressed not to see any remains of Miss Sophia from The Color Purple or Sethe from Beloved on screen. Oprah as Gloria — drinking, smoking, cursing, slapping and even the cracks in her voice — is a stretch. Oprah Winfrey skillfully reinvented herself.
Many critics will be happy to see the disturbing grit of Daniels’ previous films like Precious and Paperboy are absent in The Butler. However, as someone who is a fan of Daniels’ edgy work, there were several moments when I wanted Daniels to push further, such as Gloria’s relationship with her seedy neighbor, played by Terrence Howard or Gloria’s alcohol problem. Also, the opening scene on the cotton-field could’ve used more of the Oscar nominee’s signature grime. Daniels knows how to tear the cinematic skin off the screen and shake viewers to their core. This doesn’t happen in The Butler but it didn’t dent the flick for me — in the long run, Daniels’ restraint might help him with touchy critics who whine that his sex and gore is gratuitous.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a phenomenal continuation of the director’s visionary eye for storytelling, imagery and reality, undoubtedly a must-see.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is in theaters Friday, August 16.