Lee Daniels’ The Butler will win awards. Its stars, its director and its storylines assure that this movie will notch several trophies next awards season.
But who gets which award? Oprah Winfrey was nominated for an Oscar in her first film role nearly 30 years ago in The Color Purple. Forrest Whittaker was a Best Actor Oscar winner for his work as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Director Lee Daniels, whose name is now part of the film’s official title, earned a best director nom for Precious (whose star Mo’Nique took Oscar home).
Cecil Gaines (Whittaker) is a butler at the White House. His career spans the years of the civil rights movement in America, from the Eisenhower administration through the Reagan years. While the nation is undergoing major changes, so are Cecil and his family members.
His story begins in the 1920’s. After his cotton picker parents are victims of hateful violence by a member of their white employer’s family in Georgia, a young Cecil becomes a “house n——.” He parlays his talent into hotel gigs and is later recruited to be a butler at the White House. Life is good, better than he could’ve imagined.
Cecil has a wife he loves (Gloria, played by Oprah Winfrey), a family, a car, a home and a good job, serving presidents at the White House. When his son Louis (Daniel Oyelowo) goes to college in Nashville, he becomes an activist in the civil rights battle, making Cecil uncomfortable. The son’s radicalization takes him all the way to the Black Panthers, at which point Cecil decides he has gone too far. Their other son goes to the opposite extreme and enlists in the army during the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, Gloria’s booze issues threaten family harmony.
The men who are cast as U.S. presidents make up a notable list: Robin Williams as Ike, James Marsden as JFK, Liev Schreiber as LBJ, Jon Cusack as Nixon and Alan Rickman as Reagan. Jane Fonda appears as Nancy Reagan and Minka Kelly plays Jackie Kennedy. Presidents Ford, Carter and Obama appear via video footage.
Nancy’s invitation to Cecil to attend a White House dinner not as a server, but as a guest, is an appropriate coda to his career. A few more life events follow during Cecil’s retirement.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler’s talented cast also includes Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Maria Carey and Vanessa Redgrave.
Screenwriter Danny Strong and Daniels should be praised for keeping this movie at a reasonable length. This is a big movie that covers a lot of ground in just over two hours. With as many characters and plot points as this film has, it could’ve run much longer.
Whittaker’s performance should nab him another Oscar nomination and LDTB should land a best picture nom. Is Oprah’s performance Oscar-nomination-worthy? She’s good, but I don’t think she’s a lock to win, as some have forecast. Best adapted screenplay is another possibility. (Click HERE to read the Washington Post story that inspired the fictional movie script.)
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a good film but not quite a classic. Because of its specific subject matter and because it covers a large swath of recent American history, LDTB is likely to become a favorite of many moviegoers.