Lee Daniels' The Butler

In The Butler, director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) takes us on a Forrest Gump-style journey through American history.  Forest Whitaker stars as Cecil Gaines, a fictional character based on a white house butler named Eugene Allen, who served eight Presidents over the course of more than three decades. Through Gaines's eyes, we watch national events unfold from the beginning of the civil rights movement to the election of the first black president. Although it is a work of historical fiction, the movie plays like a biopic, and, like many films of that ungainly genre, it contains too many truncated sequences that leap from one major milestone to another, failing to engage our emotions on anything but the most superficial level. I usually expect to write off the first third of any biographical movie and just hope that there will be something worth watching by the time the hurried narrative finally slows down. Happily, once The Butler settles into its stride, it becomes an absorbing family story told with a first rate cast.

Whitaker lends gravitas with a stately performance, and Oprah Winfrey, as Gaines's wife Gloria, makes a rare and welcome return to acting.  The fine character actor David Oyelowo plays Louis, their eldest son, and his idealistic clashes with Cecil provide compelling dramatic tension. Daniels also packs his film with cameo appearances from big name stars. Some of these casting decisions are inspired and surprising, like John Cusack as Richard Nixon or Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Other choices, though, are too ironic and distracting, including Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan and Mariah Carey as Cecil’s mother, a beautiful slave girl.

Another major weakness of too many biopics is the excessive time they devote to their subjects' childhoods. Checking off key scenes in a character’s youth usually feels obligatory, and it wastes valuable screen time that would be better devoted to the story’s main dramatic events.  This is certainly the case for The Butler. Michael Rainey Jr. and Aml Ameen portray Cecil as, respectively, a boy and a young man. They are fine actors, but they’re not Forest Whitaker. We come to a movie like this to see the star, not to listen to the star narrate a bunch of scenes with younger actors. The most successful biopics are wise enough not to try and summarize a person’s entire life in two hours. They convey information about their protagonist’s formative years through well-crafted dialogue and by showing us how they behave as adults. If, instead of getting the ClifsNotes of Cecil’s youth, we spent more time with him as an older man dutifully serving the most powerful white men in the world while his son is off becoming a Freedom Rider, The Butler could have been a far more challenging and indelible film.  Similarly, more time devoted to exploring the details, rather then just the broad strokes, of how this familial rift affected Cecil’s wife, would have better served the emotional core of story, and enabled it to get deeper under the skin of the viewer.

Ultimately, The Butler comes off as an ordinary movie about extraordinary times and events, but the stellar cast raises it a notch or two above the typical biopic. Though occasionally sanctimonious and full of anachronistic behavior, it contains within it a powerful theme about the dignity found in stoic patience as well as in decisive action.

Directed by Lee Daniels
Produced by Lee Daniels, Cassian Elwes, Buddy Patrick, Pamela Oas Williams, and Laura Ziskin

Written by Danny Strong
Based on the article: "A Butler Well Served by This Election" Wil Haygood

With: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Elijah Kelley, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Mariah Carey, Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, Robin Williams, James DuMont, Minka Kelly, Lenny Kravitz, Clarence Williams III, Colman Domingo, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Nelsan Ellis, James Marsden, Aml Ameen, and Chloe Barach

Cinematography: Andrew Dunn
Editing: Joe Klotz
Music: Rodrigo Leão

Runtime: 132 min
Release Date: 16 August 2013
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1