Tag Archives: Lee Daniels

Review: Lee Daniel’s The Butler

the butler poster
via Cinema Blend

Lee Daniel’s The Butler (2013)

PG-13 / 132 min

Biography / Drama

Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo

Director: Lee Daniels


We’re smack dab in the middle of another election season which means one thing, more change is coming to the White House.  No matter how this election turns out, a new president is going to be elected and people will be moving in and out of the White House.  It’s a change that’s relatively constant every four (or eight) years.  I’m willing to bet that the White House is probably the one house in America that has had the most tenants over the course of history.  I’m probably wrong but I’m 80% confident that this is the truth.

The Butler (2013)Forest Whitaker
(Screengrab)
via EW

Change doesn’t affect everything in the White House though.  It’s the behind the scenes crew, the group of individuals that keep America’s oldest and safest house running at tip-top shape, that are the one constant amidst the change.  Perhaps the most notable staff member that the White House has ever had on its team was Eugene Allen, a butler who served under a multitude of presidents over a 34-year span until he retired as head butler in 1986.  He is also the source and inspiration behind Lee Daniel’s The Butler, a historical drama that takes a look at the wildly intriguing life of Cecil Gaines, butler at the White House.

Yes, that’s right, the name of the butler in the movie, played by Forest Whitaker, is named Cecil Gaines.  I’m not sure why they decided to go with that name over Eugene’s actual name, but there’s probably some legitimate reason that makes sense.  I’m sure Eugene or his family probably had something to do with it.  Forest Whitaker was pretty much perfect for this role.  He was stoic and constricted in his mannerisms as he slid right into the body of Cecil.  The man goes through a lot over the tenure of his work and watching the way he acted and reacted to things was one of the best parts of the movie.  There’s few actors I could have seen doing better in this role than Whitaker.

the butler 2
via The Atlantic

The rest of Cecil’s family are also just as delightful, although they don’t reach the same caliber as Whitaker’s performance.  Oprah Winfrey plays Cecil’s loud-mouthed wife Gloria.  Cecil also has two sons, Louis and Charlie, played by David Oyelowo and Elijah Kelly respectively.  Louis is the rebel in the family while Charlie is the good two-shoes of the bunch.  One of the primary spotlights of the movie is centered on Louis as he becomes a big proponent for the black civil rights movement and joins the Black Panthers.  We film switches back and forth between Cecil’s life in the White House and Louis’ life on the streets.  One is working for the power while the other is working against it.  They both ultimately want the same goal, social freedom, but watching the contrast between the two is really cool.

The reality of making a movie about the life of Cecil Gaines, as well as the civil rights movement, is perhaps a little tougher than it seems.  You could create a multi-season TV show about the two, but when you try to cram 30+ years of history into one movie, things get a little crowded.  The film’s pacing is light on its feet and it flies through the years, only stopping here and there for important plot moments.  Lee Daniels had a lot of ground to cover in terms of material and it would have been nice if he honed it down to a more concentrated and smaller portion of history.  The focus of the story moves a little too fast between different time periods making it hard to catch a breath.

Lee Daniels' The Butler

Another way in which the movie faults is with its A-list cast.  It’s funny that I say that.  A-list cast?  Why would that be a bad thing.  Your right, having a top-notch cast is usually something you strive for with a movie but in The Butler’s case, the cast is actually a little distracting.  Over the course of the movie we are introduced to the eight presidents, who range from lesser known actors to the more popular.  The bottom line, they were all gimmicky in their own ways.  Casting the late Robin Williams as president Eisenhower was one example of the questionable casting decisions.  He looked the part but didn’t necessarily fit into the part personality wise.  Instead of saying, “oh look, it’s president Eisenhower!” I said, “oh look, it’s Robin Williams…that’s weird.”  There’s also appearances from the people like Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz that just felt out of place in the movie.

Despite its missteps, Lee Daniel’s The Butler is a well-made period piece.  It tells not only a fascinating story, but an important one that needs to be told.  It also finds ways to be relevant to this day.  (It even has a couple of scenes dedicated to the Obama election) The movie might be a quick and fast crash course on the topic of the civil rights movement, but that only acts as a backdrop for the story at hand, which is the story of Cecil Gaines, a black White House butler during a time of unparalleled change in American history.

THE BUTLER

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Review: Empire Season 1

via fanart.tv
via fanart.tv

Empire Season 1 (2015)

TV14 / Fox

Drama / Music

Starring: Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, Jussie Smollett

Creators: Lee Daniels, Danny Strong


When I sat down and watched the first episode of Empire I had no clue where it was going to end up.  It could have been a surprise hit, or a complete failure; I was not sure.  It had a unique spin on the family drama sphere of television, one that chronicled the life of a family in the hip-hop music business.  If only I knew the raging wildfire that the show ended up turning into as succeeding weeks went on.

The show, which gives us a glimpse of the glamorous lifestyle of the Lyons family, proved to get bigger and bigger every single week.  Every week, they would release the numbers and they just seemed unrealistic.  How could a show do this good?  How could a show continue to receive more viewers every week, without going down in ratings?  The pilot was watched by around 9.8 million viewers and the finale clocked in at about 16.7 million viewers, without ever taking any dips or stumbles.  The show, on its quick rise to the top, ended up crushing records, including the record for highest rated season finale by a first year show, which was previously held by the Grey’s Anatomy for its first season in 2005.  The show now stands as TV’s highest rated and most popular show out there, and it’s only just begun for the crew at Empire Records.

via ibtimes.com
via ibtimes.com

Lucious Lyons (Terrence Howard), the owner of Empire Records, is the star of the show.  We find out in the first episode that he is diagnosed with the chronic illness that is ALS.  The one thing we learn throughout the show is that Lucious is not a man to go down without swinging.  He’s a fighter.  He wants to take his record company public, but in order to do that, he needs to find someone to take the throne.  His three sons, Andre (Trai Byers), Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), and Jamal (Jussie Smollett), have to pretty much earn their dad’s trust and respect in order to get a piece of his empire.

We also have the character of Cookie, played by Taraji P. Henderson.  If you have not watched the show, but manage to stay up to date with pop culture discussion, you have probably already heard of Cookie’s character.  With hash tags like #ShitCookieSays, it is easy to see why Cookie was one of my favorite characters from the series.  She is the ex-husband of Lucious who was put into jail because of her and Lucious’s past in the hood.  She was sentenced to seventeen years in jail, all while Lucious built up his Empire, calling it his own.  We see in the show however, that this is not so much the case, and that Cookie has had a big part in the label’s success.  When she gains freedom from the precinct in the first episode, it is immediately care that she is not going to let Lucious have all the fun with Empire’s success.  She wants a part of it too.

via opdnewsfeed.com
via opdnewsfeed.com

The show contains all sorts of themes, including greed, power, and the flashy lifestyle that comes with the hip-hop industry.  It is these kinds of things that separate the show from other family dramas.  It made the show much more interesting to watch.  There were numerous points throughout the season where everybody seems to have their own motives in mind when carrying out their actions.  This leads to lots of juicy conflict and literal hair-pulling drama, especially in the last couple of episodes.  Cookie and Anika Calhoun (Grace Gealey), Lucious’ head of A&R, have a tense relationship and this relationship often provided us some of the best moments from the show.

There are two things that probably contribute to the massive success behind the show, and that is the show’s edgy plotlines, as well as the rich music.  The show, on top of the concepts that I mentioned before, travels to some areas where most shows would never think to go.  Lucious Lyon demonstrates his homophobic nature whenever his son Jamal comes out.  We also see his disdain for white women with Andre’s relationship with his wife Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday).  These two plotlines come up frequently throughout the first season and they painted Lucious Lyon in a pretty negative light.  I applaud the show for hitting these types of themes though, because the show had a lot to say about them.  I think it handled them well.  It is these kinds of themes that permeate the hip-hop industry, which is why it would make sense to tackle them in a show like Empire.  As Lucious says, “hip-hop is controversy.”

via Rolling Stone
via Rolling Stone

Rapper and producer Timbaland was the guy behind Empire’s amazing soundtrack, which includes genres like hip-hop, rap, r&b, and gospel.  If you are making a show about music, you have to make sure that you get the music nailed down right, and Empire gave us a formidable soundtrack, knocking it out of the park.  Hakeem, an up-and-coming rapper, and Jamal, the passionate r&b singer, provided some great musical hits, as well as some of the supporting cast.  The show even featured some cameo performances from the likes of Jennifer Hudson (who actually played the role of Andre’s musical therapist), Estelle, Mary J. Blige, Snoop Dogg, Rita Ora, Juicy J, as well as others.  The music was so good, that there is talks about producing a concert series featuring the show’s hit music.

As the show went on, the plot twists and deep intertwined drama started to get more and more intense.  The last four episodes where edge-of-your-seat enthralling and rattling television.  The one gripe I started to have was that some of these riveting twists and turns seemed a little cheap.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but things start to suddenly look up for Lucious by the second to last episode, completely out of the blue.  They used a convenient plot device to make the show more interesting for its second season.  This might be hard to argue with, but I wish they could have handled it with a more realistic solution.  There were a ton of other cheap and convenient plot twists that served the purpose of moving things along towards what looks to be an intense season two.

via Billboard
via Billboard

I started to get the sense that Empire realized how big it was getting.  The first couple of episodes were interesting and entertaining, but as the ratings started to skyrocket towards the sky, so did the show’s vision and scope.  You could almost see the show evolving before your eyes as it drove towards the fantastic finale.  It was a show that gripped me from the get-go, and it kept me wrangled towards the very end.  As the final credits started to role after its thirteenth and final episode of the season, I just felt myself hungry for more.  Season two cannot come sooner enough.  Empire is one of the few shows that can be considered “must watch TV.”  If you haven’t already, I would highly recommend catching up on the first season, because I can only feel that the show is going to get bigger as season two takes the stage this fall, or next spring…but hopefully next fall.

via realitywives.net
via realitywives.net

****SPOILERS BELOW****

The finale pretty much presented us with the main skeleton behind season two.  When Lucious, after realizing he does not have ALS anymore, gives the throne to Jamal, Andre and Hakeem are not too pleased.  They want to do what is considered a “hostile takeover.”  They join forced with Cookie and Anika to basically bring down Jamal and Lucious’ empire.

In the final couple of scenes, we see that Lucious’ dark past catches up to him when justice is finally done.  He is arrested for his murder of their cousin Bunkie and is sent to jail during his tribute concert.  This is bad news for Empire, the newly public company.  This only means that season two is going to be a story of revenge for Lucious.  He is going to use these recent forthcomings as fuel for his comeback.  Season two is going to be one hell of a season if the series’ creators can play the right cards.

*************************

empire season 1 score

Empire Pilot Impressions

What do you get when you mix the hit musical drama Nashville with the glorious flashy lifestyle of hip-hop?  You get Fox’s Empire, the bold new musical drama from the highly decorated Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, who have worked on projects like Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Precious, and Game Change.  What makes Empire different from the other musical dramas out there is its sense of style, as well as the issues it tackles right away in the pilot.  It’s a vivid look at situation that faces a black family in control of a lucrative record label.

The determined and successful Lucious Lyon, played by Terrence Howard, is the head of the multi-million dollar record corporation Empire Entertainment.  He’s come a long way from his gangsta days in the rough parts of Philadelphia.  He built a career for himself, and rose to the top to get to the position that he’s in today.

via Inquisitr
via Inquisitr

He’s not the only one that can be attributed to Empire’s success.  Lucious’ three sons, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), Hakeem (Bryshere Grey), and Andre (Trai Byers) have all grown right alongside the company from its beginning days.  Jamal is a gay singer, who has never been fully appreciated by his father.  (He also reminded me of Frank Ocean)  Hakeem is an up-and-coming rapper who Lucious sees as a prime asset for the label.  Lastly, we have Andre, who is the eldest of the trio, and probably the most loyal.  He is the company man, a man who wants to take over for his dad when he is gone.

As it turns out, Lucious doesn’t have too much longer with the company, after finding out that he is terminally ill with ALS.  It wasn’t made to clear in the pilot, but I assume that no one else besides himself knows of his condition.  Regardless, he realizes that he is going to have to pick an heir to his throne when he is no longer capable of fulfilling his job.  It’s apparent that the three sons are going to have to fight their way into that chair.

via Black Film
via Black Film

Meanwhile, we meet the cunning Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), who is Lucious’ ex-wife.  She’s just been released from prison (due to an unknown reason) and she gets to work the minute she sets foot outside the gates.  She wants Empire for her own, considering the fact that she was a big part in its success back in the early days.  Taraji P. Henson gives us a character who is vicious, manipulative, and a little psychotic.  Cookie is going to do anything that she can to take the reins from Lucious.

During the pilot, we start to see where the show is heading.  Lucious sees a bright future for his son Hakeem, and doesn’t accept Jamal’s talent because he’s gay.  Hip-hop’s evident homophobia is something that no too many pieces of entertainment have tackled.  It’s going to be intriguing what the show has to say about it.  On the flip-side, Cookie has a favoritism for Jamal, and she begins to work with him to further his musical career.  I bet that we are going to see a war between Lucious and Cookie; Jamal and Hakeem.  The two have a fondness for each other, but it’s only a matter of time before the war starts.  This is going to leave the perfect place for Andre, who doesn’t have any musical talent, to step right in as the new head.

via TV Equals
via TV Equals

One of the things that worries me about the show is its quickness.  By that, I mean how fast it jumped from situation to situation.  The pilot was a roller coaster of a ride and it covered a lot of ground in such a short amount of time.  Things were starting to heat up and the credits weren’t even rolling for the first episode yet.  I fear that the show is going to burn out after a while.  It’s not going to be able to keep up with its pace.  The action and the drama is going to have to slow down.

We also saw a little glimpse at Lucious’ relationship with his childhood friend Bunkie Campbell (Antoine McKay).  The two were friends since they were fourteen in the streets of Philadelphia.  Ever since Lucious started working on making Empire a publicly traded company, he has started to leave Bunkie in the dust.  Bunkie naturally doesn’t find this situation ideal and he wants his cut of the money.  Towards the end of the episode, we get a scene that involves Lucious killing Bunkie near the river, with that being it for him.  This was a letdown because I was interested in the character of Bunkie.  I thought he was going to play the role of the “wild card” in the growth of Empire.  Unfortunately, he was taken out of the picture rather abruptly.

via TV Equals
via TV Equals

I have a feeling that Empire is going to be a big hit however.  The music that executive music producer Timbaland brings to the show has a genuine and original feel that has a lot of style.  The music complements the daring and alluring flair of the show.  It’s a unique family drama that looks to explore the hip-hop culture, as well as the families and record labels that make it possible.  It’s going to be a fun show.  I have no clue who is going to take control over Empire Entertainment, but I do know that it’s going to be all out musical war.