WRITTEN BY: Danny Strong
DIRECTED BY: Lee Daniels
STARRING: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo
RATING: 4 stars
Who is not in The Butler? The cast list is certainly long and distinguished - and that elevates an already solid film. It is also a good condensed history lesson of the US from the point of view of African-Americans living in the 60's, 70's and 80's. While parts were a little too sappy, especially in some of the intimate family moments, and the film lacked subtlety in its push to depict the horrors faced by African-Americans over the decades, The Butler is interesting and worth seeing.
Although the film is inspired by the true story of Eugene Allen, who worked as a butler under eight presidents, the film is almost entirely a work of fiction, aside from a few anecdotal tales from the real man. The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) who comes from virtual poverty working on a cotton field to become a revered butler in the White House. Cecil is married to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and they have two sons. He does everything he can to protect his family and give them a better life. But his oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), clashes with his father about how a black man should live in a white man's country. Louis joins the freedom riders and starts spending time with Martin Luther King. The film chronicles the changes in the US over several decades and explores how the nation treated African-Americans through the eyes of these main characters.
Director Lee Daniels, who has made haunting films like The Paperboy and Precious, has softened slightly with The Butler but still shows some brutal and harrowing scenes that will tug at the heart strings. It is impossible not to feel for the freedom riders attacked in a chilling confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan, and of course the John F. Kennedy assassination is presented with great sadness. My main criticism of his style in this film was the costumes used to depict each decade. It was too obvious to show jumpsuits in the 70's and tracksuits in the 80's, and there were unintended laughs from the audience in several moments during my screening.
Some may also find the endless stream of cameos distracting, especially all the familiar faces of each president. But I think it is a testament to how intriguing the story is that so many well known actors wanted even just a small part in it. The cast includes Robin Williams, James Marsden, Alan Rickman, John Cusack and Liev Schreiber. There are also small roles given to stars like Cuba Gooding Jr who is very funny and Terrence Howard who is sleazy. Others include a creepy Alex Pettyfer, Mariah Carey in a tiny role, Lenny Kravitz, Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave.
But the film really rests on three actors. Whitaker is impressive with some difficult material, while Oyelowo also has some powerful scenes. In fact, he has some of the more pivotal scenes in the film. But it is Winfrey who almost steals the film. With such heavy issues explored, she certainly brings some much-needed comedy with her sass. But she also has some very serious scenes. It is easy to forget Winfrey is actually a good actress, but she is able to shine in this film.
The Butler will probably attract a lot of attention when award season rolls around and it deserves it.