Lee Daniels' The Butler

Well, Oscar season is officially here, and Lee Daniels’ The Butler is an early contender. The film follows the life and career of a White House butler as he watches history unfold over the decades. Many words describe this film: sweeping, moving, heart-wrenching and heart-warming. Unfortunately, slow and didactic also are on the list, but all in all, the film certainly is a valiant effort.

The butler is Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), an African-American raised on a cotton farm, who joins the White House staff in an era of racism and segregation. Cecil quietly serves eight presidents with dignity while history unfolds before him. Hel observes the Civil Rights movement both from the residence of the commander-in-chief and from his own home, as his son experiences violence, racism and protest on the front lines. 

The acting in the film is exceptional, even the painfully over-exposed Oprah Winfrey is deft as the troubled Gloria Gaines; and Whitaker is, as always, stellar. The star-studded presidential cameos vary in success but are extremely entertaining. The problem with the film for me was that, while the events that unfold in history are riveting, Cecil’s inscrutable service is less so. It’s a bit like making a documentary about a man who has a really good seat at the Super Bowl—the audience wants to watch the game, not the observer. It lacks the delicate balance between history and character study that Forrest Gump nailed so perfectly. Moreover, the film covers so much groundbreaking history, it is impossible to give every event the attention it deserves. Despite its flaws, the film is sure to be on the Oscar short list. It’s a 7.

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