An OWNers Review of Lee Daniels’ The Butler: "I am Forever Changed"
The film is a work of art. What Lee Daniels is able to achieve in this film is nothing short of spectacular! He depicts a sweeping story, told over many presidential administrations, with a huge cast, shifting scenes, beautiful sets and differing eras, incorporating changes in art direction and costuming without ever making anything feel trite, superfluous or marginalized. Each scene is infused with the depth, meaning, authority and significance essential to the characters’ narrative arcs and key in the depiction of the historical evolution of civil rights in this country. Using actual photos from the featured eras and civil-rights protests, coupled with news broadcasts and television footage, Lee Daniels creates a world that takes the viewer on the journey with the Gaines family. Writer Danny Strong’s screenplay puts the Gaines family's experience in a larger, more robust historical narrative with scenes that rooted a grand epic story in moments of quiet grace, longing, grief and joy.
I love this film's attention to detail in the White House scenes, the various protest scenes and in the Gaines family household. Everyday moments are infused with such significance— from Gloria making breakfast and describing her potato salad, to Cecil preparing his first tea service for President Eisenhower and reading a book to Caroline Kennedy. Fashion and costume design are used to delineate time in the film, yet they remain consistent to each character’s aesthetic inclinations and desire to use fashion as personal and political expression. Finally, with set design, whether it is the blue carpet in the president’s bedroom, the silver tea service in the White House, the yellow patterned sheets in the Gaines’ bedroom or the worn furniture in the Lawson workshop, Lee Daniels expertly notes that, just as details make the White House, details make the family, and details make the era.
For me, what resonated most and what brought the film and this story to life were the incredible performances by the actors in the film. Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker is utterly mesmerizing. He uses his expressions, movements and cadence to bring Cecil Gaines to life, with the slowly shrinking posture throughout the course of the film that demonstrates a man bearing the brunt of physical aging and emotional weight. Mr. Whitaker uses every nuance of speech, every pause, every gaze, every inflection thoughtfully and authentically, developing a character that is not only a witness to history, but the very embodiment of it. A master-class performance, Mr. Whitaker is simply sublime.
Oprah Winfrey does the impossible: As a woman known worldwide as a media mogul, talk show host, business leader and philanthropist, she completely disappears into the role of Gloria Gaines. From the moment she appears on screen as Gloria, with curlers in her hair, making breakfast in the kitchen, you can’t help but be pulled in to the story of a woman devoted to her family but longing for connection. Her depiction of regret, loss and understanding is positively transcendent. During a critical moment in the film, when Gloria receives devastating news about the death of her youngest son who is at war, the way Ms. Winfrey registers the news on her face—from initial shock, to pain, to ultimate wrenching anguish—is utterly heartbreaking and completely authentic. While Cecil serves as the anchor to the film, Gloria is the one we most identify with, and that Ms. Winfrey can make her character real, flawed and completely believable is brilliant.
David Oyelowo brilliantly portrays the arc of Louis—from inquisitive teen to civil rights activist, defiant son and politician—all the while maintaining his steadfast commitment to justice and equality, even though the means through which he seeks to achieve these goals go through transition from one era to the next. Finally, all of the supporting players in the movie do the impossible: They imbue their roles with such quiet confidence and steadfast dedication that you completely forget you are watching some of the most popular names in film today grace the screen.