MRR Review: Lee Daniels' "The Butler"

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Based on a Washington Post article written by Wil Haygood, titled "A Butler Well Served by This Election", this bio-drama tells the story of Eugene Allen, a black man who served as a White House butler for 34 years, 8 presidents and had a unique front row seat as political and racial history was being made.
3.5

MRR Review: Lee Daniels' "The Butler"

Rating: PG-13 (some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements, and smoking)
Length: 132 minutes
Release Date: Aug. 16, 2013
Directed by: Lee Daniels
Genre: Biography/Drama

In the first scenes of Lee Daniels' "The Butler," viewers are introduced to young Cecil Gaines (Michael Rainey, Jr.), who is the son of sharecroppers Hattie (Mariah Carey) and Earl (David Banner). The family may be legally freed from slavery, but the plantation they work on has a cruel master named Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer) who treats them just like slaves. Young Cecil witnesses Thomas rape his mother and murder his father, acts that shock Thomas' mother, Annabeth (Vanessa Redgrave). She takes young Cecil in and teaches him how to be a domestic servant, setting the stage for his future career.

Older and wiser, Cecil (now played by Forest Whitaker) toils in the dining room of a trendy hotel, where a White House aide notices his attention to detail. The aide interviews Cecil and then hires him to be a butler under President Eisenhower (Robin Williams). He excels at the job and is kept on staff even as a new president comes into the White House. Though his professional life may be going great, his home life is anything but. He has an alcoholic wife named Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) who brazenly steps out on Cecil and is not the best of moms to son Louis (David Oyelowo). Louis resents his father because he feels that he is complacent in the institutionalized racism that marked the United States at the time. He becomes a radical freedom fighter while his father continues to serve under each new President from JFK (James Marsden) all the way through Reagan (Alan Rickman).

Each President has a new set of race relations and struggles to deal with, and Cecil is there to observe them all. Each event from those eras is told through Cecil's eyes, so he serves as a surrogate of sorts for the audience. His reactions feel true to the character, even though some of those reactions involve only facial expressions instead of words. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Whitaker's face, even through the fantastic aging prosthetics he wears, is saying a whole lot.

Since the film spans eight decades, a large number of actors had to be used, and several play the same characters at different ages. When the cast of such a sprawling film is so large, one or more actors often step up and steal a few scenes, perhaps overshadowing the main actor. That is not the case in Lee Daniels' "The Butler"; Whitaker is in full command of every scene that he appears in. That isn't to say that the rest of the cast isn't good; on the contrary, the rest of the actors all turn in fine performances, but none of them overshadows Whitaker. He is in fine form here, turning in what is arguably the performance of his life. That's saying a lot considering just how long and prolific a film career he has had. Not a single person who views this film will be surprised to find him on the short list for award nominations come winter, and every one of those potential nominations would be well deserved.

Winfrey hasn't been in a major motion picture since 1998, but she more than makes up for lost times as boozing wife Gloria. Though this is clearly Whitaker's film, Winfrey does give him a run for his money as a woman who doesn't seem to be able to deal with her reality. Still, Gloria is fiercely loyal (though not faithful) to Cecil, and some of the best scenes are ones in which these two characters interact and deal with the pain of their broken relationship. Winfrey isn't afraid to play down her clean image, and the result is arguably the best performance of her career.

Writer/director Lee Daniels is probably best known for the tear-jerking 2009 hit "Precious," which won several awards, including an Oscar for star Mo'Nique. The two films have some similarities, including several strong performances by women. However, in this film, Daniels seems to hold back on the emotions just a bit in an effort to try and show how many African-Americans like Cecil weren't allowed to express their emotions for fear of reprisal, especially in a workplace like the White House. As the film progresses to the present day, with Louis becoming a supporter of eventual president Barack Obama, Daniels allows the torrent of emotions to finally let loose. A series of cathartic scenes and moments give the film an emotional push towards the end that will stick in viewers' memories and perhaps pull at their heartstrings.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5