Rob’s Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Lee Daniels' The Butler on
Letter Grade:

The Good:

Excellent performances from Whitaker and Oyelowo
Works as a father-son drama

The Bad:

Presidents universally miscast.
Plays fast and loose with actual history

Cast & Crew:

Director: Lee Daniels
Writer: Danny Strong
Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey,David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Liev Schreiber, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda

Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking

Lee Daniels’ The Butler gets off to a kind of rapey and murdery start.  Forrest Whitaker’s Cecil Gaines grows up in the south, and when his mother is raped and his father is murdered by their employer, the matriarch of the employing family moves young Cecil into the house to be a servant. Cecil knows this won’t end well, so after some training he runs off and finds employment at a hotel, where he begins to learn the fine art of buttling. Eventually he moves to Washington D.C. where he begins working at a fine hotel, and eventually he is discovered and offered a job at the White House, where he serves every President from Eisenhower to Reagan.

 The Butler on

The film gives us little glimpses of (most of) these presidents (they skip right over Ford and Carter), mostly looking at Civil Rights in that era, contrasting civil rights discussions in the White House with the experience of Gaines’ son, a Freedom Rider in the South. The meat of the movie is in Gaines’ relationship with his son and the rest of his family, but these little peeks inside the White House do a pretty good job of humanizing the Presidents, even if they can’t do any one of them justice.

The presidents are pretty much universally miscast, the filmmakers seeming to care more about having actors you’d recognize more than actors who would actually make you think they ARE that president. The makeup on them is generally good though, and it’s exceptional on Forrest Whitaker himself. You see Gaines over the majority of his life and Whitaker always looks the part.

 The Butler on

Oprah is good as Gaines’ wife, but the real standout of the supporting cast is David Oyewolo as Gaines’ son Louis. He’s really almost a co-lead as he grows up in the midst of the civil rights movement, going away to college to be in the civil rights movement, becomes a Freedom Rider, travels with Dr. King, becomes a Black Panther and comes back to the mainstream. Louis goes through a huge arc, and Oyewolo makes it all believable.

There will be Oscar nominations to come out of this film, and it’s an important story, if not a terribly historically accurate one. It’s “inspired” by the story of a real butler at the White House, but the parts of the narrative that work the best definitely came from the mind of Danny Strong. And I can’t fault the film for that, because they ARE the parts that work the best. Those who are getting upset about “President X didn’t really think that” or “the real Butler didn’t have a son in Vietnam” are missing the real point of the movie (though so are any who might go the other direction, putting too much faith in its accuracy).  It doesn’t gel perfectly, and this isn’t really the story of the Butler who worked at the White House forever, it’s the story of a father and a son during the civil rights movement, and as that alone it works.

Rob Bernard (108 Posts)

Rob is the Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Techie of Cinedraft. He hated Million Dollar Baby. And is really excited about the Ender's Game movie. More About Me