It’s getting to be that time of year, folks – award season. And with the approaching likes of the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, BAFTA’s, SAG’s, comes the big contenders for nominations. Lee Daniels’ The Butler is very much a contender in the awards race across many different categories. This two-hour-plus historical, political drama has a lot of elements that make up an award-winning film – but does that make it a good movie?
Based on somewhat real events, inspired by an article written by Wil Haygood in The Washington Post in 2008, The Butler loosely tells the story of Eugene Allen through the fictional character Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). Cecil is an African-American man who grew up in the deep south working on a cotton plantation in the 1920s. Moving his way up to be a house servant, he finds he is quite adept at the job and follows the occupation all the way to Washington DC, where he begins working as a butler at The White House. Cecil’s position in the home of the President of the United States of America draws a rift between him and his family, with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) feeling neglected and his eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) having radical ideas about how African-American citizens should be treated in society.
There is a very large and talented ensemble cast at work here in this film, led by the superb Forest Whitaker. His portrayal of this character inspired by Eugene Allen is dignified and thoughtful, as Cecil is a character who is caught between the ideologies of the 1920s and the emerging civil rights movement that his son Louis is fighting so hard for. Backing Whitaker most notably is Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s wife Gloria, in her first dramatic performance since 1998’s Beloved. Her performance as this strong woman who wants the best for her family but has her own demons to overcome is assured and meditative, in a role that easily stands up against her iconic Sofia from The Color Purple. David Oyelowo as Cecil’s eldest son Louis, who goes on a journey of political change to help the African-American civil rights movement, holds his own against Whitaker and his side-story is far more interesting in comparison to Cecil’s. Everyone gives fine performances, no matter the size of their role – the actors playing the presidents enjoying their short screen time, delving into these iconic personas. It is particularly nice to see Cuba Gooding Jr back on the big screen, here playing one of Cecil’s White House co-workers. He has a brilliant charm to him that makes you wonder why he has been stuck on the straight-to-DVD releases for the last few years.
Lee Daniels, best known for Precious and last year’s The Paperboy, directs here in a very by-the-numbers fashion. He shrugs off his grittiness here for an often over-polished view of the political climate being portrayed, when it is the grit from his previous films that would have made this story far more interesting. The screenplay from Danny Strong is quite standard for a historical/political drama such as this and, while Cecil’s home life gives way to moments of substance, we are often left simply watching without connecting with these characters in the way that we need to.
So, does this film with award winning elements written all over it actually deserve to be called a good film? Sure. But it is not a great film and it really should be. The fine ensemble cast and the talent involved behind the camera all lend itself to greatness but it falls flat and is yet another political history drama biopic that reads like a textbook. There is no argument that this tale of the civil rights movement is worth telling but it deserves a better treatment than this. Enjoyable, yes. Memorable and unique, no.