Release date: August 16, 2013
Directed by: Lee Daniels
Written by: Danny Strong, Wil Haygood
Washington Post article: A Butler Well Served by This Election
"Lee Daniel's The Butler" is one of those movies that is built for the Oscar race. It boasts a terrific cast, including Forrest Whitaker, Alan Rickman, and Oprah Winfrey; and it deals with a very sensitive subject, the unbearable racial tensions that plagued and nearly crippled this country.
Based on an a newspaper article that ran in the Washington Post, the film covers over 80 years of American history, following Cecil Gaines (played as an adult by Forest Whitaker), as he struggles to earn his place as a black man during the Civil Rights movement. When we meet Cecil, he is just a boy working on the Westfall cotton plantation. After his father dies, he is taken in by Mrs. Westfall, and she teaches him to be a house servant,
It's a skill that Cecil excels at and it ultimately leads him to Washington D.C. where he lands a job at the White House. He serves under a parade of Presidents, from JFK to Nixon to Regan, his quiet determination to be accepted as a man helping to inspire each of them, and in a way, change the way our country reacted to all of the racial hatred. He's told to disappear when he is in a room, to hear nothing, to see nothing, and never, ever get involved in politics.
At times, Cecil's family is the one to suffer the consequences of his dedication. His wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) has her loyalty tested, as she battles alcohol issues. Their two sons, Louis and Charlie, grow up with differing views on their father's willingness to serve a white man instead of fighting to establish a new respect from white people.
The real heart of this story is the relationship between Cecil and Louis (David Oyelowo). The two men find themselves going in opposing and conflicting routes in order to achieve the same goals. Oscar is sure to shine on a number of actors in this cast and they are all, Oyelwelo especially, deserving of any future acting nominations.
As great as the cast is, sometimes it becomes its own worst enemy. The parade of celebrity cameos is fun to watch for a while, but some don't quite blend in as well as others. Rickman is terrific in his short stint appearance as Ronald Regan, as is James Marsden as JFK. But for every actor who disappears into character, someone else has a little trouble. When Richard Nixon is on screen, it's less Presidential and more, "...and also John Cusack was there...". And then there is Oprah Winfrey as Cecil's wife Gloria. It's a great role, but it's hard not see her as Oprah.
After a slow and uneven first act, the film really finds itself in the second. The real life events surrounding segregation, and the fight to end the racial tensions, highlight some really powerful and gut-wrenching moments. But with all the heavy drama, director Lee Daniel's does a nice job of sprinkling in some much needed comic moments. These lighter moments are provided by Lenny Kravits and Cuba Gooding Jr., as Cecil's friends and fellow staff members at the White House.
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" emerges as the first true Oscar contender of the season thanks to great performances from the cast. But the film is important because it serves as a harsh reminder as to how far we've come as far as race relations in this country and just how far we still have to go.
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