Lee Daniels The Butler works because of a cast filled with familiar faces in not so familiar places.
By Denise Clay
For me, what makes a movie worth my $12 is a combination of good dialogue (I am a writer, you know…) and good acting.
Hollywood, to its credit, has produced some pictures that do this well, like, say, The Dark Knight trilogy, and some that don’t, like, say, anything with Tyler Perry’s name on it with the possible exception of For Colored Girls….
Lee Daniels has managed to catch the good casting/good writing lightening in a bottle with his new film, Lee Daniels The Butler, which opens this weekend. While he took a little heat for one casting decision in particular, anyone who focuses on it will miss a well-written, well-acted film that while it didn’t do what Fruitvale Station did for me, it did make its own impact.
The Butler is based on an article by Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood about a man who had served in the White House through a secession of presidents. Forrest Whitaker, portrays Cecil Gaines, the son of sharecroppers who found himself literally serving the most powerful men in the world, and Oprah Winfrey portrays his wife, Gloria.
The cast is rounded out by Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr. (in one of those rare roles where he doesn’t make you cringe),Terrence Howard, (who is slowly becoming typecast as a smarmy dude) Lenny Kravitz and David Oleyowo as Gaines’s son Louis, who also serves as the movie’s main plot device.
Now what do I mean by that? Much of the movie is the juxtaposition of Louis’s days as a soldier in the Civil Rights Movement and his father’s days as a man who serves the lead politicians that either do…or don’t…move the movement forward.
While at times this juxtaposition seemed too cut and dry due to the way the movie was edited, I liked how it seemed as if both men were trying to contribute to a cause they both shared despite their disagreements on method. Whitaker, who is one of those actors that could read the phone book to you and make it interesting, shows a sort of dignity as Cecil that Oyelowo’s Louis doesn’t seem to understand…and they make the conflict believable.
At the screening I attended, Daniels described the film as a “love story”, and that comes through as well. In addition to the love that comes through between father and son despite their disagreements, Winfrey and Whitaker have a chemistry that makes them believable as a married couple. In fact, Winfrey’s character reminds me of a lot of the older Black women I’ve encountered in my life.
But while Whitaker and Winfrey command the screen, you’ll find yourself saying “Is that who I think that is?’ on more than one occasion during this film.
Some of Daniels’ casting decisions are unconventional on their face, but they work. Mariah Carey as Cecil Gaines’ mother? It works despite critics saying that she was too light skinned for the role of a sharecropper. Why? Because the character is damaged…and if anyone can show what damaged can look like, it’s Mariah Carey.
However, Carey’s casting wasn’t nearly as interesting as the casting of some of the Presidents. Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower? Jane Fonda (or Hanoi Jane to some Vietnam War vets), as Nancy Reagan? John Cusack, who spent most of the 80s as one of teen angst director John Hughes’ muses as Richard Nixon?
Lee Daniels The Butler is a trip through a part of our country’s history that is going to be coming up a lot more often as we approach the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.
Go see it before you get on that bus to DC.