Review: “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (***)

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker star in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” has a lot going for it. Its sheer ambition is almost overwhelming. Added to that is a cast that includes, but is not limited to, Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Robin Williams, James Marsden, John Cusack, and Jane Fonda. Directed by—you guessed it—Lee Daniels (“Precious,” “The Paper Boy”), the film is a fictionalized telling of the real-life White House butler, Cecil Gaines. It’s a much more mainstream movie than the director’s previous works but is still able to pack a few punches. The film is a bit uneven and sometimes feels rushed. Its scope is huge and often scarifies exposition for a quick history lesson.

The heart of the movie lies with Cecil and his relationship with his family. After Cecil’s horrific childhood on a cotton farm and climbing higher and higher on the ladder of servitude, his hardworking nature and his desire to provide a good life for his children end up shaping who Cecil Gaines becomes. Forest Whitaker is terrific, bringing charm and often times humor to the story, but it’s Oprah’s role as his boozy, impulsive wife, Gloria that steals the show. Rest assured, the ‘Oprah-ness’ of Oprah quickly fades away and underneath the loud outfits and ever changing wigs is a real actor giving a fantastic performance. The other stand out is David Oyewolo. He plays Louis, Cecil’s oldest son. It’s their relationship, and often times lack-there-of, that holds the story together. The family members are on opposing sides when it comes to the civil rights activism that Louis desperately wants to be apart of.

The many Presidents fade in and out of the story and Daniels shows just enough to give a sense of who they were and how they were viewed (at least in the eyes of the White House staff). The performances are good. The actors are able to stay away from caricature territory, mainly because of how briefly each President is on screen. At times, this is where the movie starts to feel like something you’d catch on your grandmother’s muted television set. There’s an almost-comical amount of celebrity cameos, which sometimes distracts from the film’s heart.

While the performances from Whitaker and Winfrey are especially great towards the end of the film (in part thanks to impressive make-up work), the movie throws all subtlety out the window here. Politics aside, there’s something jarring about seeing our protagonist, who’s grown up before our eyes, wearing an Obama t-shirt. Daniels, taking an obvious and generic route, shows us everything that we were already thinking in our heads, thus making the end of the film far less effective than it could have been.

The film’s depiction of the Civil Rights Movement is powerful and often great. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is packed full of memorable scenes, effective drama and crucially important subject matter. Daniels navigates the tricky narrative with few missteps, though some scenes feel more like a ‘for your consideration’ ad than real story. The Butler is good enough and succeeds in more ways than it falls short.

3 out of 5 stars.


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