By Darlene Donloe
Lee Daniels’ The Butler opens in theaters nationwide today (Fri., Aug. 16) with a fanfare that is palpable.
The hype surrounding this film started more than a year ago. The film, which took five years and 37 producers to bring to the screen, is expected to do well this weekend against Harrison Ford’s Paranoia, Kick-Ass 2 and Ashton Kutcher’s Jobs.
The historical drama, written by Danny Strong, is loosely-based on the life of former White House butler Eugene Allen, who served during seven presidential administrations between 1957 and 1986.
The film is inspired by Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article, ‘A Butler Well Served By This Election,’ which chronicled Allen’s life. Allen died in 2010 At age 90.
In the film, Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines (the Allen character) while Oprah Winfrey plays his wife, Gloria.
It starts out in 1926 in the cotton fields of Macon, Georgia where Gaines hears the rape of his mother (played by Mariah Carey) and witnesses the tragic death of his father at the hands of his white cotton field overseer. (It’s hard to believe that Mariah Carey’s character would be in the field.) The film follows a young Gaines as he escapes the segregated South in search of a better life.
On his life’s journey he learns invaluable serving skills that will later ‘serve’ him well.
After a few setbacks and life-changing encounters, Gaines eventually ends up in Washington, D.C. where his career as a butler takes a significant turn. He gets a job at an elite hotel where he excels.
After he’s noticed by a White House administrator, Gaines takes a job as a butler at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which enables him to provide for his wife and his two sons Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley).
Louis becomes a political activist and a Freedom Rider, who eventually joins the Black Panthers. Charlie, who would rather fight for his country than against it, enters the army.
As this story plays out, so does the civil rights movement. You can see how the civil rights movement unfolded inside the White House.
There are some intense and dramatic moments in the film. Lee Daniels’ The Butler is poignant and powerful – even though the script is a bit uneven.
The audience is taken on an emotional ride through American history. There is a stop by the Martin Luther King, Jr., and JFK assassinations, the civil rights movement and Watergate.
Several people involved in the movie are surely headed toward Oscar nominations. For sure Whitaker will get his second nod (He won an Oscar for The Last King of Scotland), as will David Oyelowo. Winfrey also turns in a very strong performance.
As the wife, Winfrey does a standup job. She plays a woman who is cooped up at home while her husband spends many hours working at the White House. Eventually her alcoholism becomes a problem. She begins to resent the hours Gaines puts in at work – and has an inclination to stray, much to the delight of her neighbor, Howard, played by the multi-talented Terrence Howard. Gloria dolls herself up for nights out that never happen and festivities that are usually confined to her living room. When all is said and done, Gloria stands by her man.
Daniels’ direction is solid. He gets impressive performances from his cast, especially Whitaker and, surprisingly, Winfrey, who admitted to hiring an acting coach in order to get this role – right.
The supporting cast is equally admirable.
There are some nice performances from some good actors portraying some of the nation’s presidents including: John Cusack (Richard M. Nixon), Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan), James Marsden (John F. Kennedy), Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan), Liev Schreiber (Lyndon B. Johnson) and Robin Williams (Dwight Eisenhower).
Jesse Williams (Grey’s Anatomy) plays Rev. James Lawson, while Nelsan Ellis portrays Martin Luther King Jr.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler (Weinstein Company), directed by Daniels, written by Danny Strong, stars Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams, Jesse Williams, Pernell Whitaker, Colman Domingo and Clarence Williams III.
Running time: 132 minutes; MPAA Rating: PG-13.
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t know), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable) O (OK) and E (excellent), Lee Daniels’ The Butler gets an E (excellent).