‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ Movie Review – A Family Drama
Good movies have a good conflict, but great movies have more than one good conflict. Lee Daniels’ The Butler has two conflicts and they both appear to be pretty good on the surface. It’s only when you dig deeper that you realize how fictional the historical drama really is. Although it doesn’t ultimately tarnish the well-acted and emotional story too much, it does make it just a little bit less great.
Based on the true story of Eugene Allen, The Butler chronicles the life of African-American butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). It starts with the tragic loss of his father at a young and follows him through eight presidential terms as a White House butler. The presidential terms take a backseat to the social scene unfolding in front of his eyes as the world is shaped by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.
A second conflict, one which I’ll get into more later, surfaces between Gaines and his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo). Louis chooses a different course of action when it comes to change in the cultural awareness, eventually joining the Freedom Riders and the Black Panther Party.
As you can probably tell, the movie has a lot going for it from the very beginning. The Butler may signal the transition from blockbuster season to awards season (yes it’s getting to be that time already), and the story embodies everything awards voters like. It’s not afraid to show America’s ugly side, but, more importantly, it shows us getting through these tough times. Mix in a great ensemble cast, including names I haven’t mentioned like Robin Williams, Melissa Leo, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, and Jane Fonda, and you’ve got a hit in the making.
All of this seems good and well because the story is thematically-rich and very emotional. However, “based on a true story” seems to be the most dangerous part of the entire movie. If the story was completely true, it’d be phenomenal. However, Lee Daniels and writer Danny Strong (HBO’s Game Change) take a lot of what I’ll call “creative liberties.” These liberties include a multitude of plot devices to make the story more suspenseful. Some of these liberties make the narrative seem heavy-handed, too.
Still, if there is a subject that deserves to be heavy-handed, it’s prejudice. Like I said earlier, it’s the darkest time period in American history. There could be hundreds of movies on this subject and it still wouldn’t ever underscore the importance.
However, the second conflict emerges as, in my opinion, the strongest part of the film. It not only makes up for the “creative liberties,” but it makes the story even more relevant. By exploring the father-son relationship (even if it is completely made up), The Butler connects on an emotional level that’s different from the historical significance. Interestingly, the most emotional scenes involve the family conflict.
For a quick rundown on acting superlatives, Whitaker has the most screen time and the biggest shot at an Oscar nod. While he’s certainly deserving, Oyelowo eats up his scenes as does Gooding, Jr. (coming as the biggest surprise). Oprah Winfrey, who I’ve failed to mention up to this point, also shines in a role that may have worried some people.
The final Oscar nomination with undoubtedly go to the production design and make-up. Covering such a wide time range, it’s hard enough to find good pacing (something Daniels does well), but it’s even harder to age the characters. At 52 years old, it must’ve been a tough task making Whitaker believably younger, but they found a way.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is Oscar-bait through-and-through. Is that such a bad thing? Probably not. While feeling awfully heavy-handed at times, it still delivers in performances, subject matter, and emotional umph. The biggest issue then becomes the reality of the story, which uses powerful non-fictional characters (like John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and more) to its advantage. In the end, it’s probably worth looking past because of the dual nature of the conflict that’s boosted by the powerful, and often times sad, family dynamics.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is out in wide release today. For a full list of the movies debuting this weekend, check here.
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