Cuba Gooding Jr.
This is one of those films where you have to know the difference between “based on” and “inspired by.”
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” follows the story of Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), who began his life working in a cotton field as a child. After seeing his father get killed, Cecil grows up learning how to be a server inside a house. Eventually, Cecil makes his way to the Washington D.C. and over time finds himself working as a butler in an upscale hotel.
His skills allow him to be noticed by a supervisor at the White House and he begins working there soon after. Cecil ends up working under multiple presidents while serving as a butler at the White House and is able to observe major moments of how the administrations dealt with civil rights issues. Meanwhile, the job puts a bit of a strain at times on his marriage with his wife Gloria (Winfrey), as well as his son, Louis (Oyelowo), who becomes involved with multiple civil rights movements through the film.
“The Butler” is told in the same vein as “Forest Gump,” it is told in a narration voice over through the eyes of a protagonist who witnesses multiple historic moments. This both helps and hurts the movie at the same time. While it was interesting seeing the reactions of Cecil to what was going on in the White House and engaging to follow his son Louis’ story arc, there were times when the movie just felt somewhat like a history highlight reel.
The pacing is well done, though, and it at no point really drags along, however, there were sub plots that felt a bit out of place and seemed to be added just for extra drama. The film wasn’t an absolute true biography on the historical figure, instead it was just inspired by one, so it was as if they may have taken liberties in the wrong places, and not enough in the right ones.
Acting wise, there are a lot of heavy hitters. Starting with Forest Whitaker, the guy knocks it out of the park. His facial expressions alone sold exactly what his character must have been feeling in some key White House meetings. Oprah Winfrey also makes a great comeback to the screen playing Gloria. Winfrey really buys into the character and gives a strong performance.
Some other bright spots included Cuba Gooding Jr., who finally made his way into a good movie again, and David Oyelowo, who was powerful as Cecil’s son.
The downside to “The Butler” in the acting scope was actually those who played the presidents. It was difficult getting past the actor who was playing the role, for example Robin Williams as President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Another example is John Cusack, who played Richard Nixon. He just wasn’t as believable as Nixon the way Frank Langella was in 2008’s “Frost/Nixon.”
Lee Daniels does an admirable job making an interesting period piece that highlights multiple historic moments. There are some strong performances in here and the story is enough to keep one’s engagement. However, the movie did fall into a few emotional tropes and subplots that keep it from being a superb piece of cinema. “The Butler” comes in at a 3 out of 5.