Movie Reviews & Interviews from Washington

‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’: Whitaker and Winfrey Star in Oscar-Bait Film

After the first 10 minutes of watching Lee Daniels’ The Butler (I still wished they could’ve kept with the original name), I was hooked. The story of this young man, who worked in a cotton farm as a boy, where he witnessed his father getting shot right in front of him, grew up to work in the White House as one of the most loved butlers in Presidential history. I was instantly intrigued on his journey to the White House and what he experienced over the decades serving eight Presidents.

Based on The Washington Post article by Wil Haygood, The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a man who worked in the White House for more than three decades. Gaines certainly had an experience in Washington with the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam and other events that affected him and his family.

Cecil provides a comfortable life for his wife Gloria (a wonderful Oprah Winfrey) and two sons Louis (David Oyelowo) Charlie (Elijah Kelley). As Louis grows up, his interest in the civil rights movement grows and he becomes a Freedom Fighter in the South. With Cecil working in Washington during the civil rights movement and his son in Tennessee actually experiencing it, the film divides itself into two clear plotlines.

oprah winfrey the butler

I have to talk about Oprah Winfrey here and I have to say she blew me away with this performance. The most famous talk show host in the world became an Oscar-worthy actress in this film. She will clearly by nominated for an Oscar, but it’s too soon to tell if she will win. If the Oscars were tomorrow, it’d be a shoe-in for both Whitaker and Winfrey.

Screenwriter Danny Strong, who’s most famous for writing the screenplay of HBO’s Game Change, (even though hard-core Buffy fans like myself easily recognize him as Jonathan!), does a lovely job of introducing the Presidents to the audience. Each actor physically transformed into these famous Presidents and I adored all of them in the film. Robin Williams plays Dwight D. Eisenhower, Josh Cusack is Richard Nixon, James Marsden is John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber is Lyndon B. Johnson and Alan Rickman is Ronald Reagan.

If The Butler ended 15 minutes earlier, it would’ve been a better film and more importantly, I would’ve given it a 4/5 versus the 3.5/5 I gave it. The last few minutes are propaganda filled, which takes away from the most important message in the film. Screenwriter Strong’s message is clear at the end of the film, but I think he should’ve let this emotional story tell itself and not cheapen it by shoving the message down our throats.

Though the screenplay loses its way near the end, a magnificent cast grounds the film, with super performances by Whitaker and Winfrey.

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