If I wanted to be completely accurate, I would have prefaced the title of this one by putting "Lee Daniels'", but y'all know how I feel about that. Not that I'm saying Daniels has that same Tyler Perry complex where he feels the need to remind everyone that he made something. It's just annoying to me whenever filmmakers do that as it's an attempt to upstage the work itself. That being said...let us get on with the more important business of the review itself...
"The Butler" tells the story of White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) who served eight American presidents over three decades. The film traces the dramatic changes that swept American society during this time, from the civil rights movement to Vietnam and beyond, and how those changes affected this man's life and family.
First and foremost, I must say that as soon asI found out this was yet another film that would showcase important moments of Black history, I wanted to make sure my sons would see it. Before I could even mention the idea, G expressed to me that he wanted to check it out. There wasn't even any persuasion needed from me. That made me feel extremely good knowing that a movie of this stature was something he wanted to see at his age. It made me feel that I'm doing something right.
It was rather impressive was the parade of well-known established actors that Daniels was able to get to portray the different Presidents depicted in this one. They included Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson. What was even more notable was how good all of them were in their roles as the respective Presidents. Not dead-on ringers, but certainly very believable in every instance.
Watching Cecil deal with the duality of his butler role and his home life gave me a whole different respect for the domestic servant role. It was almost like a male version of "The Help" as we are shown how difficult it was for our ancestors to hold their tongues in the interest of maintaining a sustainable source of income for their household. It had to be especially difficult for someone like Cecil when we see what life experiences he had to go through before ultimately getting into that position.
I was intrigued to see how Oprah Winfrey would come through with her role as Cecil's wife. It's not like she had to prove herself since we all know she had it in her; it's just that it has been so long since we've seen her in a featured role that I was thinking she may be a little rusty. Apparently not. She gave us a character that ended up leaving you conflicted with how to feel about her. She wasn't the best wife she could be in the beginning, but was it entirely her fault? Regardless, she stuck with her man through thick and thin which had him doing the same. All while dealing with children that didn't always agree with the traditional values the two of them rightfully tried to teach.
The rest of the supporting cast was nothing less than phenomenal. The one who threatened to upstage everyone though was David Oyelowo as Louis Gaines. He was absolutely polarizing with every minute of screen time he had. Especially watching his gradual transformation from a restless teen to a social conscious college coed to militant youth until he eventually become the mature community-focused politician. Oyelowo brought so much depth to the character that no matter which phase of his life was in you were still able to empathize with him in some way. You could always see that his heart was in the right place, just not always getting there the way it should.
As much as Oyelowo stood out, he wasn't alone. Just when you thought you could write off Cuba Gooding, Jr. for no Academy Award performances since "Jerry Maguire", he comes through as the White House lead butler. And I never would have thought Lenny Kravitz was able to be so convincing that I would forget who he was even was. But it also helped that they made him look a little heavier. What was up with him looking like he had three necks??
I knew going in that there would be some emotional moments in this one. I wouldn't expect anything less from the man who brought us "Precious". However, I had no idea it would come in the form of a scene that touched so close to home. It was when Cecil was witnessing the inauguration of our nation's first Black President. It instantly had me thinking of the conversation I had with Popoo shortly after it actually happened. I became overwhelmed with a mixture of all the beautiful Popoo memories combined with the feeling that everyone from his generation would have experienced as a result of the monumental occasion of that inauguration.
Now I know I said that I didn't think any other movie could come close to being as good as "Fruitvale Station". That may have been a bit premature. I failed to realize that 2013 is a year where we are getting inundated with an unusual amount of quality Black films. That's keeping in mind that we still have "The Best Man Christmas" and "Black Nativity" on the horizon. In the meantime, I'm looking at a year where I could very well have a tie for the best movie of the year.
My rating: A