Lee Daniels' The Butler
Filmmakers often take from real-life historical events to create inspiring stories for modern audiences. With “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” the powerhouse performances, combined with a broad historical timeline that spans eight presidencies, creates an entertaining and moving film.
The film is based on the life of Eugene Allen, a butler who served eight different presidents during his tenure at the White House. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” centers on the fictional character Cecil Gains (Forest Whitaker) who, like Allen, rose through the ranks of the White House staff. Cecil begins his lengthy 34-year career serving President Dwight D. Eisenhower and ends it with President Ronald Reagan.
The film’s setting spans the 1920s to 1980s, so aside from serving in the White House, Cecil also witnesses a time riddled with change as the civil rights movement gains traction. At the same time, his marriage to his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) begins to fall apart and take a large toll on him.
Director Lee Daniels, whose recent claim to fame was directing the Academy Award–winning film “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” brings out much of the racial tension that was at the forefront during the time Allen was in the White House.
Daniels’ use of both real footage of racial protests from the civil rights movement and vivid reenactments of major historical moments, such as presidential speeches, helps blend the fictional drama with real-life events.
The acting is one of the film’s greatest strengths. The all-around quality ensemble, with shining performances from Whitaker and Winfrey, as well as from David Oyelowo, who plays the Gains’ eldest and most rebellious son, clearly stand out. Oyelowo captivates viewers with his character’s moral dilemma of staying by his pacifist father’s side or fighting for his civil rights.
Whitaker leads the group as his acting gives the film emotional depth. Whitaker exemplifies this in his exchange with Oyelowo where he confronts his son’s recent involvement with the notoriously violent Black Panthers.
Winfrey also delivers a gripping performance opposite Whitaker, consistently feeding off his character to believably portray a couple dealing with marital issues.
By contrast, several smaller roles that portray historical figures fall flat because of a lack of energy in the actors’ portrayals. As a result, the acting of James Marsden, who plays John F. Kennedy, and John Cusack, playing Richard Nixon, is unconvincing and bland, ultimately making the actors’ parts seem unimportant.
Overall, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” comes together as a well-crafted film that manages to truthfully capture a time period that stretches more than three decades, while still entertaining audiences. By displaying change over time through the eyes of a central character, Whitaker’s Cecil Gains shows the audience how one man struggles to strike a balance between his loyalty to the White House and the unignorable civil rights movement happening before him.