The Butler Review

Posted: September 8, 2013 by moviebuff801 in moviebuff801's Movie Reviews

By: Michael “Moviebuff801” Dennos

While watching The Butler, you could almost compile a checklist of all the types of plot points a movie like this normally incorporates, and check them all off as the movie goes on.

An underdog main character who comes from a troubled upbringing?  Check.

He has to deal with adversity once the story kicks into gear?  Check.

Said adversity being represented in the form of racial tension in the 60’s and 70’s?  Check.

Is this character’s life based on a true story?  Check.

Does the movie tout a wealth of well-regarded actors to play the main and supporting characters?  Check.

Is the story told with heaping amounts of sentimentality?  You got it.

The Butler is every bit the obvious Oscar bait the previews blatantly make it out to be, so much so that it could almost be re-titled Lee Daniels’ I Want An Oscar.  It hits every dramatic note that members of the Academy seem eager to lap up every year, and isn’t subtle in how it does so.  But, to my surprise, in spite of all that, The Butler is actually pretty good Oscar bait at the end of the day.  Go figure.

As a sidenote before we go any further, I refuse to refer to this film as Lee Daniels’ The Butler.  Not that I have anything against Daniels personally, but I still find it pretty egotistical, especially when he’s only had one “high-profile” film up until now.

The Butler is the true story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a black man who served as a White House butler for 34 years beginning in the late 50’s.  Cecil was raised on a cotton plantation in 1920’s Macon, Georgia.  After witnessing his father’s point-blank shooting at the hands of the farm’s owner (Alex Pettyfer), young Cecil is brought up as a server in the estate until he decides to go off into the world on his own when he’s old enough.  Cecil finds ways to hone his skills as a server until one night, when he attracts the attention of someone on the White House staff, who gets Cecil a job on the Presidential serving staff.  By then, Cecil is married to wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and has two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley).  The rest of the film chronicles the rest of Cecil’s life, from his interactions with each successive President to the conflicted relationship that develops between him and Louis due to Louis’s growing interest and involvement in the Black Power movement.

The biggest reason why this movie works so well is the strength of acting on display, which in turn lends a generous amount of conviction to the proceedings.  There’s nothing here we haven’t seen in other Oscar bait films of this ilk, but I’ll be damned if Lee Daniels and co. still don’t pour their hearts into it.  The characters who are more in the spotlight are naturally the ones we latch onto.  Forest Whitaker is, of course, fantastic in the role of Cecil, and I’m sure it’s bound to get him another Oscar nomination, but he’s not the one I want to single out.  Instead, I’d like to point out David Oyelowo, who gives a surprisingly strong and passionate performance as Louis.  It could be argued that Louis is the character who’s the emotional anchor of the film’s race issues.  I certainly would, because I gradually found myself so interested by and involved in his storyline, that I kind of wish they’d made the movie more about Louis.  That’s not to diminish Whitaker’s work, though, because he still elicits great empathy as Cecil.  I also can’t deny the strength of Oprah Winfrey here, who’s genuinely compelling and entertaining as Gloria.  Also, what a relief it is to finally see Cuba Gooding, Jr. be good again.  He portrays Carter Wilson, the fast-talking head butler at the White House who provides a good amount of comic relief, but still has some good dramatic moments here and there.  A bunch of big-name actors such as Robin Williams, Alan Rickman, James Marsden and John Cusack portray a few of the Presidents to occupy the Oval Office throughout the years, and while none of them have a great amount of screentime, they all do solid work nonetheless, even if their roles require a certain amount of impersonation.

If the acting wasn’t so strong, then perhaps Danny Strong’s script wouldn’t feel so heartfelt.  Then again, the writing does seem to contain the right amount of sentimentality so it doesn’t feel as if it’s being shoved down our throats.  Even though most of the film’s dramatic beats are fairly predictable, there’s just something about how they’re presented that, while they occasionally make us roll our eyes slightly, they nonetheless get the desired effect when they need to.  But I will say where the film chooses to end feels completely predictable and pretty arbitrary, considering the central message of the film.

The direction by Lee Daniels feels typical of this genre, and again, I reiterate that you could just as easily call this movie Lee Daniels’ I Want An Oscar.  It’s like Daniels studied similar films during pre-production and chose to copy that sort of style rather than incorporate anything that feels like his own personal touch.  That may partly be because this is the first film of Daniels’ that I’ve seen, but still, there’s not a whole lot of directorial touches on display here that feel like they don’t come out of Oscar Bait Directing 101.  I will give Daniels enough credit for putting together something that’s respectably and emotionally well put-together, but I saw nothing in this movie that made it clear to me that he deserved his name before the title.  I suspect it’s because Oprah used her pull, and I also suspect I wouldn’t be wrong there.

The Butler is one of those movies that tries its damndest to be the highest-quality Oscar bait, but while the acting is up to snuff and it has its heart in the right place while simultaneously wearing it on its sleeve, it winds up being just good rather than great.


  1. CMrok93 says:

    Nice review Michael. The ensemble got a bit distracting at times, but the story was still interesting enough to hold my interest, and be happy to see where racial-relations have gone in this country.

  2. moviebuff801 says:

    Thanks. Yeah, as the film went on, it almost became a game of “Look, there’s (insert big star)!”, but the movie still had enough heart to keep you drawn in.

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