Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo
Directed by: Lee Daniels
Running Time: 2 hour 12 minutes
The Weinstein Company
Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars
For me school was about teachers constantly pounding the same subjects over and over into our heads. Every year we’d go over the same material…history, English, science…but obviously it’s tweaked just a little to give us that fresh feeling even though it’s the same thing. Late middle school and the beginnings of high school is when you’re finally able to branch out and dive past the simplified textbooks handed out at school and begin to get a taste of something more in-depth. When it comes to the civil rights era, we were taught about Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Those aren’t bad people to start out with, but what about those behind the scenes? Their stories and their influences on the times are so much more compelling and that’s what “The Butler” goes for.
Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) is a hard working man who has always done his job to a tee. Even as a young lad, while he watched his slave owner murder his father and sexually abuse his mom, he has maintained a cool demeanor and was raised as the perfect house servant. He’s exactly what the White House wants. A man who puts his job above everything else and someone who never reacts or speaks about politics. Those two things don’t sit well with his wife, Gloria (Winfrey) and his son, Louis (Oyelowo). Gloria loves the fact that he’s so successful in life, but unhappy that many of her days are spent alone at home, chain smoking and washing away her sorrows with alcohol. Louis wishes that his father, within constant contact with everyone in the White House, would speak up for civil rights.
Cecil and his son represent two different ideas during the civil rights movement and neither are wrong in their thoughts or ideals. Louis starts his journey as a Freedom Rider, moving on to Black Panther and then to an aspiring politician, spending half of his time in jail for protesting. Cecil continues gaining the admiration of those around them and impressing each and every President with his back breaking work. Both father and son’s journeys highlight specific pivotal parts of the civil rights movement. Besides the social impacts, the movie also profiles the home life of Cecil and Gloria, which is the main emotional draw of the film. It’s their life’s journey that will make you laugh, feel tense and at times tear up.
Every little intricate character is well cast but the centerpiece of this ensemble is Forest Whitaker, who puts up a top-notch performance. If there’s any weakness among the powerful cast, it’s Oprah. While she’s not terrible, she never matches the same highs that Whitaker does and is often outdone by Oyelowo in their scenes together. The actors who play the Presidents are all well suited, but never get enough time to draw upon the historic mannerisms, while the actors portraying Cecil’s co-workers in the White House are a delight to watch whenever they’re called upon.
This is an “inspired by” story, which means that you can’t take everything at face value. However, Lee Daniels and Danny Strong have penned a very good movie. There’s never a dull moment and I would almost say it’s one of the more enjoyable flicks of the year. Come Oscar time this movie will definitely be getting some nods, but it may not be strong enough to reel them in. This movie is definitely riddled with political overtones, but that shouldn’t stop you from being satisfied with this imaginary look at a key part of our nation’s history. The journey of Cecil and the journey of our country are one in the same. Tough times always lay ahead, but perseverance will overcome our struggles. If I can walk out of a movie feeling good with that message, it’s better than anything I was taught in elementary school.