FlixChatter Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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What strikes me most when I left this film was how the devastating events portrayed in this film happened not too long ago. As an immigrant living in the US, I may not be as well versed about the history of the Civil Rights movements nor the details of racial segregation that still prevailed just five decades ago. But the issue of racism is something we fellow human beings can all identify with and relate on various levels. In Lee Daniels’ The Butler, those universal themes become even more potent as it’s such a personal journey. And what a journey it was.

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is based on a real-life White House butler Eugene Allen, who served eight American presidents over three decades. The film opens when Cecil was a young boy in the 20s, working on a Southern Plantation in the Deep South. In one day, his mother got raped by his white owner, and his dad ended up getting killed right in front of him. The older woman of the house took pity on him and trained him to be a house servant. It soon became the key to survival for Cecil as he leaves the plantation, as he’s able to find work from that training which eventually leads to him being ‘discovered’ by a White House staff.

Whilst Cecil lives a relatively happy life, now married and able to afford a pretty nice house where he lives with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and his two boys. He loves his job and is well-liked by both his employers and fellow staff. Presidents come and go but they’re all fond of Cecil and find him to be trustworthy. Life may seem quiet in the White House, but the country is in tumult, with dramatic changes happening during his time, most notably The Civil Rights movement and the war in Vietnam, both of which affect Cecil’s life in a personal way.

Despite the tough subject matter though, I’m glad that Daniels peppers this film with wit and humor. Cecil’s enthusiasm for his craft is endearing, and soon he gains a reputation amongst his staff for his unmistakable dedication. I love all the interaction in the kitchen with fellow service staff Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, with Cuba as the comic relief. The film shows the contrast between what happens in Cecil’s work life and at home with his family and friends. He’s a man living in two worlds, something he’s perhaps unable and unwilling to resolve. Obviously it puts a strain on his relationship with his oldest son Louis (David Oleyowo), especially as he dabbles in politics in college. Obviously the two don’t see eye to eye on how best to handle the issue of racial prejudice. The film’s tagline says: One quiet voice can ignite a revolution, which is Cecil’s motto. It’s safe to say that Louis sees his dad as a pacifist.

As with many biopics, there are a certain dose of sentimentality here, but there are genuine dramatic tensions and terrific performances to overcome it. In fact, I didn’t feel emotionally manipulated as much as I did when I saw War Horse that’s so overwhelmingly schmaltzy. That’s quite a feat considering how gut-wrenching the real historical moments were, thank goodness I packed a bunch of tissues. I think the protest scene at the diner and the burning of the Freedom Bus by the KKK would haunt me for days. It’s pretty amusing to see the historical characters portrayed in the film, though the film stray into fanciful territory with Louis hobnobbing with all the who’s who of the Civil Rights Movements, from Malcolm X to Dr. Martin Luther King. Surely the filmmaker took a lot of liberties in this area, as it gets to be too hard to believe that one person can be in every single monumental Civil Rights event in history.

I also got a kick out of seeing a myriad of actors portraying the eight presidents during Cecil’s tenure as the butler. The make up looks jarring at times, especially John Cusack as Nixon. Seeing Alan Rickman as Reagan is one of the highlights for me as I love Rickman as an actor, though he still can’t lose his inimitable diction whilst speaking with an American accent. It took me out of the movie for a bit but overall those scenes didn’t distract me from the story.

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Now, the performances. Forest Whitaker will likely garner an Oscar nomination (this is Weinsteins-produced after all) and deservedly so. For one, he seems to ‘disappear’ into his role, a sign of a great biopic to begin with, but he also didn’t overact, which in a role like this is quite a feat. There’s a great deal of restraint in his performance, a lot of times conveying emotions though his eyes. There are moments where he overhears the political talks the presidents have with their staff that literally affect his own family, and the anguish and torment Cecil must’ve been feeling comes through in subtle gestures.

Oprah Winfrey did a good job as well, though it’s a bit tough for me not to think ‘hey that’s Oprah!’ Now, my second favorite character is David Oyelowo as Louis. The 37-year-old Brit does an impressive job playing a character so believably, from the late teens into middle age, he’s absolutely convincing. He’s quickly becoming one of my favorite Brits, consistently delivering terrific performances just in the past few years in The Help, Rise for the Planet of the Apes and Jack Reacher. I might have to go back to the earlier episodes of BBC Spooks as he’s apparently one of the cast!

Final Thoughts: This is the first film by Lee Daniels I saw, and I must say I’m quite impressed by his direction here. I think the filmmaker handled the crucial ‘landmark’ moments such as JFK and Dr. King’s shootings pretty well in that they always serve as a ‘background’ to the focal point that is Cecil’s life. The cinematography is beautiful, I like way he shot the details of the White House. Daniels also like to use music to highlight/dramatize certain scenes, and for the most part I quite enjoyed it. The score by Rodrigo Leao is quite pleasing to the ear as well. It’s quite an ambitious endeavor and it feels one-sided politically, but I think Daniels has crafted a charming and poignant film that I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing again.


4 out of 5 reels

What are your thoughts on this film? I’d love to hear it!

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54 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

  1. Fabulous review Ruth. I wasn’t too sure about this one but I think I’ll give if a go. It’s sounds like quite a change of pace from Daniels, considering the controversy of his last film the Paperboy.

    • Yeah I heard about the controversy of The Paperboy. I think I mentioned to you I’m not interested in seeing that one. This one is certainly not as bizarre as that one, though some of the scenes are disturbing, but probably because it was that way when it happened.

      • Yeah, I don’t think you’d like The Paperboy that much, Ruth. I actually did, despite the backlash it received. I’m a bit depraved that way ;-)

        Still, this does sound a lot more interesting than I first thought. The cast is certainly admirable – especially the cast of the Presidents.

  2. Very good review. I’m anxious to check it out after things settle down here. A host of talent involved, some which seem oddly cast. Still the story sounds amazing and I can’t wait to give it a look.

    • Hi Keith! Yeah, the casting of the presidents are rather odd. I never would’ve thought of Rickman as Reagan but it was actually fine, though he still spoke like Alan Rickman, but w/ American-ish accent, ahah. Love that guy! Yeah, amazing story, and one worth telling for sure.

    • Hi Adam! Well I hope I swayed you a bit in giving it a shot. The historical background is actually quite educational for me, but ultimately it’s Cecil’s heartfelt journey that appeal to me most.

  3. For me, Forest Whitaker hasn’t been given a great role in quite a while, interested to see what he does in this performance. As you said, I might find it distracting with those big names in supporting roles.

    • Hi Chris! This is definitely a ‘meaty’ role for Whitaker. I think the last Oscar-worthy performance he did was in The Last King of Scotland right, so perhaps he’d garner another awards love for yet another biopic. The actors playing the presidents are a bit distracting but not so much so that it derailed the film IMO.

  4. Nice review Ruth, not sure if I’ll see this in theater, might give it a rent. And yes this film will be a darling for the Oscar voters. Also, who thought it was a good idea to cast John Cusack as Nixon? Geez he looks nothing like Nixon at all!

    • I actually don’t mind the awards love for the performances, esp. Whitaker and Oleyowo, both of them did a splendid job. Ahah yeah, Cusack as Nixon made me cringe at times.

    • Yeah I was really hoping it wouldn’t be too schmaltzy but fortunately it wasn’t. There are some genuine comic moments as well that made me laugh out loud. I hope you give this a shot Julian, the racial theme certainly appealed to me, aside from the political stuff.

  5. I’m not sure about seeing this film as I have a very mixed opinion on Lee Daniels’ work as a filmmaker as well as the fact that it’s kind of an Oscar-bait film with lots of cameos. Lee Daniels is quite talented but he can often delve into heavy-handed material at times or can go into very outlandish territory. I’ll probably wait for it on TV.

    • Hi Steven! Well this is my first foray into his work, so I guess I didn’t have a predisposed opinion on him just yet. I know that I don’t think I’ll be checking out The Paperboy though. He does seem to be a very ambitious director.

  6. Wow, there’s a lot of interesting people in here. Alan Rickman as Reagan? That is interesting. This certainly seems like a movie to see for the performances.

    • Hi Ian! Yeah, the cast is fantastic. I thought Rickman was an inspired choice as Reagan. I do think the performances were terrific overall.

  7. Can’t wait to see this, Ruth, and your write up is excellent. Rickman as Reagan! Awesome! You mentioned Forest Whitaker might garner an Oscar nomination. Do you think the film is worthy of Best Film of the year? Quite a lot names in this one!

    • Hi Cindy! As a big fan of Rickman, it’s fun to see him as Reagan. As for the film being Oscar worthy, hmmm maybe, I don’t know. I do think the performance by Whitaker and Oleyowo are very strong, so I’d say this being a Weinstein film it’s probably gonna be nominated.

  8. Very nice review, Ruth. You may have talked me into checking this out in theaters rather than waiting for the dvd release. Great comments about the contract between Cecil and his son’s approach once his son begins his interest in politics. Also the way you were describing all the people this one man met got me thinking of Forrest Gump :)

    • Hi Gene, great to see you stop by! I think this is worth checking out on the big screen. It’s a great respite from the loud, bombastic Summer films and the story is inspiring in that Cecil never let his dark past make him to be a bitter person.

  9. Not as sappy or as melodramatic as I would have expected. In fact, it is at times very touching and pleasing. Problem is, it’s seemingly two movies placed into, with one being a hell of a lot more interesting than the other. Good review Ruth.

    • Yeah, I’m glad they didn’t make this to be too melodramatic. Ahah, I guess you could see it as being 2 films in one, though I think the story about Cecil and his son are interwoven pretty seamlessly, and shows the contrast between the two in how they view the Civil Rights movement.

  10. Hi Ruth, it looks like you have been staying busy with these new release reviews! I’m curious to check out The Butler, though I wasn’t a big fan of The Paperboy or Precious. Gotta admit the cast is rather impressive in this, plus it’s great to see Forest Whitaker take on a big role again.

    • Hi Eric! Yeah I’m trying to get new releases reviews quicker, I actually have Jobs review done and ready for next week as well. Whitaker has been doing some questionable supporting roles lately so yeah, nice to see him do a ‘meaty’ role in this one.

  11. Really great review! I haven’t been so anxious to see the movie lately – the trailer just hasn’t interested me. If I get a chance, I’ll definitely try to see it. Thanks Ruth! :D

    • Hello Katy! Y’know I actually didn’t see the trailer until a couple of days before. I was actually surprised how many great actors are involved but I was quite intrigued by the story. I think it’s worth your time.

  12. I remember ATB (after The Beatles ;-D), who landed here in the US in 1963-64. I was only 10 years old but only a few years later I had this overwhelming question: The Civil War was over. As of 100 years ago all slaves were free. Why are African Americans (back then you said “Negro” if you were color-blind and “colored” if you were less so. “Black” was reserved for the 70s and beyond, up until recently. Of course, the word used today is “African-American”).
    So when you examine history within those 100 years you will dig up a lot a achievement and success, but so much heartbreak, disappointment, injustice and worse. I watched the 5:00 pm national evening news every night because that’s what dad was watching on TV (back then, watching the network national news rode hand-in-hand with the evening newspaper) where I saw more than I ever wanted or expected to of the disturbing images of the Vietnam war and the struggle of the Civil Rights movement.
    I’m looking forward to seeing The Butler.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspectives of growing up in the 60s, Becky. It must be perplexing for kids growing up in that era, I mean most ppl are born color blind until they’re taught otherwise. I was a basket case when I watched the scenes at the dinner when the black protesters were harassed and spit on by the white patrons. It was so heartbreaking! I think seeing it for real on TV would’ve been too much to take.

  13. Great review Ruth! I’m on the fence on this one. Forest Whitaker gives a good performance, but the film feels a bit too lightweight to me, despite some intense scenes. The supporting cast of big names took me out of the film as well. I’m not sure if Whitaker will get nominated or not, but I’m guessing Oprah will win Best Supporting Actress.

    • Hi Josh! Hmmm, I don’t see it as being too lightweight, but hey that’s really subjective I suppose. Not having grown up seeing the Civil Rights Movements, some of the moments presented on screen hit hard for me. I really wish Oleyowo would be nominated instead of Oprah. I mean she was good but not spectacular, but that’s just me :)

      • Yeah, those scenes are powerful, but I think the film is a bit uneven tonally. Oh, I agree on Oprah. I wouldn’t nominate her, but I’m not the Academy. ;)

  14. Nice review Ruth, I hadn’t heard of this one but it’s on my to see list now. It’s quite a change of pace for Daniels from the other film of his I’ve seen Precious, which was very intense. I’m glad to see he’s brought Mariah Carey back as I think she amazed everyone with her performance in Precious. I’m glad to see one of my Fav actors, Col Brandon himself, Alan Rickman as Reagan, he actually looks uncannily Reagan-esque. I’m with you on Oprah, it’s hard to see her as anyone other than herself though seems to be a good actress. She was involved in funding Precious I believe. Excited to see Robin Williams as Eisenhower. Looking forward to this now, thanks Ruth!

    • Hi Ronan! I haven’t seen Daniels’ other films, definitely not gonna see The Paperboy though. Carey had a small but memorable role, but yeah, Col. Brandon himself as Reagan is inspired casting! It took me out of the film for a bit but still it was fun to see him. Hope you enjoy this Ronan, Cecil was a man of God as well, and I think that fact helped him through all the ordeals in his life.

  15. Hey Ruth, hope you had a great weekend! Superb review, I think this has Oscar written all over it, at least several nominations from the sounds of things. I’m really intrigued to check it out, I think Whitaker is a great actor. I wonder how this will compare to 12 Years a Slave, which will also get some Oscar buzz I’d imagine.

    • Hi Chris! It was a busy weekend but yeah it was good. I really think the performances are worth the kudos. Whitaker is especially strong here. Yep, I think 12 Years a Slave would’ve been nominated too. I’d LOVE to see Whitaker and Ejiofor both up for Best Actor, and Oleyowo in the Supporting Category. That’d be awesome!!

  16. I was sort of on the fence about this one, mainly because it looked like it could turn into emotionally manipulative territory. As you say it seems to have avoided that and actually turned out sincere I’ll probably try to see it now! Not sure if I’ll get to it, but ever since I saw the trailer I have intrigued by Rickman’s casting. Nice review!

    • Hi Hunter! I hear ya, that certainly could be the case but fortunately I didn’t feel that with this one. There are moments of genuine dramatic tension here but Cecil’s reactions actually keep the movie from being too schmaltzy. I’m also surprised that there are hilarious moments too. Definitely worth a look, oh and if you love Rickman, that’s a bonus :D

  17. I was sure this movie would flop – hard.
    I guess I was wrong haha.

    Nice review, I’m excited for the performances. Oprah is getting a lot of buzz for it, but I think thats mainly to do with her being Oprah rather than the performance itself.

    • Oh no! Why did you think that? As for Oprah, I thought she was good but not spectacular so yeah, I think it’s just her being Oprah that got people buzzing. I’m not an Oprah groupie so her casting makes no difference to me.

    • Hmmm, I can probably rank my top 5:
      Forest Whitaker
      David Oleyowo
      Oprah Winfrey
      Cuba Gooding Jr.
      Lenny Kravitz

      Out of the actors playing the presidents, I like Alan Rickman best but then again I’m a big fan of his :D

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