You know a film is going to have cultural significance if Oprah Winfrey signs on to star in it. Sure, Oprah is everywhere, but over the years she has rarely lent herself to acting, first appearing (and scoring an Oscar nomination) in the 1985 drama, The Color Purple. She also starred in Native Son in 1986 and Beloved in 1998 What do these movies have in common? They are all important African-American stories. In Lee Daniels' The Butler (opening today), Oprah once again stars in what is once again an important African-American story.
In fact, The Butler is perhaps the best and most complete movie ever made about the Black experience in America.
The film does not succeed quite as well as a character-driven drama, although it includes a very impressive ensemble, led by Forest Whitaker and, of course, Oprah Winfrey. Both take on roles that seem to be tailor-made for awards season acclaim.
Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a long-time butler and servant at the White House, whom we first meet as a child on a cotton farm in the deep South. He witnesses brutality and cruelty that only African-American slaves could truly recognize and endure. Endure he does. Eventually becoming "domesticated" - a watered-down way to describe what white folks of the era labeled a Black's transformation from a field worker to an indoor servant - Cecil works his way into a job serving the most prestigious Americans of all time: The Presidents of the United States. As the leadership at the White House changes through the years, Cecil - and other serving staff members - remain one of the few constants.
Imagine being up close and behind closed doors during the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon administrations, all the way through the Reagan years. Based and inspired by a true story, Cecil Gaines in the movie is used as more of a narrative vehicle than an actual character. Through his eyes, he allows us to peek back throughout history and listen in on how our government approached these serious social issues. He exists in the film as a means to chronicle the plight of African-Americans over the past century.
There have been many films about slavery and civil rights, but few have been as ambitious as what director Lee Daniels attempts to tackle here. The Butler begins on a plantation and transports us all the way up through the inauguration of our first Black President. Along the way, nearly every important civil rights issue is addressed or mentioned in some way.
To expand the reach of what is covered outside the world of politics, the film also deals with Cecil's son, Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo) and the testy relationship he has with his father. Through Louis, we see the Civil Rights Movement as seen by the younger generation, who looks to break free from the limitations placed on them by white America. This strong-willed boy goes off to college, but eventually joins the Black Panthers and later ends up running for national office.
By the film's end, we have quite literally been swept through nearly a century's worth of events. More impressive than the amount of ground covered is how Lee Daniels manages to capture racism of the past and the present in a shockingly raw and interesting way. We understand why a man Cecil's age would want to blend into the background of a crowded room, but we also understand why Louis would refuse to sit specifically in a "colored" section at a local diner. Both men are Black and proud, but pride is interpreted quite differently across the generational gap. Both versions of self-pride - to stand up for yourself as well as to remember the road traveled - were necessary for extensive change to eventually occur.
Oprah plays Gloria Gaines, the long-time wife of Cecil. The two share a strong on-screen chemistry, but the family storyline that they share is somewhat melodramatic and predictable. Surely though, their scenes together will play as familiar to many African-American families, especially those who grew up during the eras covered in the film. No, the strength of the film is not necessarily in what it is able to do dramatically, but rather in how it covers much of the path that African-Americans have taken towards equality.
A delightful treat in the film is the depiction of the Presidents. Each President is portrayed on-screen by a well-known actor and each do a magnificent job with their minor roles. Watching the film, it became a sort of game, to eagerly anticipate who the next actor would be playing the next President. It begins with Robin Williams as Eisenhower and goes on to include John Cusack as Nixon, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. They all are superb, even though Rickman took the longest to warm up to. The film even manages to portray the famous first ladies, Jacqueline Kennedy (Minka Kelly) and Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda), in all their glory.
These cameos are great, but the ensemble is enhanced further with the likes of Cuba Gooding Jr, Lenny Kravitz and Terrance Howard, all doing fine work. Smaller performances from Vanessa Redgrave, Mariah Carey, David Banner and Colman Domingo goes to show that there weren't too many people in Hollywood who didn't want to be a part of this epic film.
The Butler should be required viewing. It has everything a good movie should and holds a social and political significance that few other movies possess. Sure it's a bit stilted and heavy-handed at times, but the drama and plot are not this film's meat and potatoes. Screenwriter Danny Strong does a good job of balancing the deeper themes in the film with moments of lighthearted comedy, but when not directly dealing with major political bullet points, the film struggles to find its dramatic rhythm.
It's hard to believe that everything went down the way that it is portrayed in The Butler, but the truth is that all of these events, over the course of a century, actually occurred. The film is a celebration of a people who could once only dream of sharing in the American Dream and about the courageous men who successfully fought tooth and nail for their very survival.
And about those, like Cecil Gaines, who showed his strength in an indirect way, by having the tenacity to blend into the background out of self-preservation...not because of a lack of vigor but explicitly due to it.
Genre: Biography, Drama
Run Time: 2 hours, 12 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Forest Whitaker, David Banner, Mariah Carey, Vanessa Redgrave, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer
Written by Danny Strong (HBO movies: Recount, Game Change)
Directed by Lee Daniels (Precious, Shadowboxer, the Paperboy)
Opens locally on Friday, Aug 16, 2013 (check for show times).
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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time