Lee Daniels' The Butler Reviews
GREG: (Greg Smith, Founder of Agile Writers of Richmond, VA) All kidding aside, this looks like an Oscar contender - and so early in the season, too.
SCOTT: The Butler begins by introducing us to a young African-American boy named Cecil Gaines who, along with his family, is working on a cotton farm in the south in 1926. The boy witnesses his mother being raped and his father being murdered by the White land-owner. The murderer s grandmother adopts Cecil and trains him to be a butler. Later, as a teenager, Cecil leaves the farm and ventures into the city where he is hungry and homeless. He is caught breaking into a store to steal food, and the kind servant who caught him decides to hire him. This is the break Cecil needs to kick-start his adventure.
GREG: Cecil (Forest Whitaker) works hard and learns the ropes. When an opportunity comes to move to Washington, DC and serve at a luxury hotel, he takes it. Again, he works hard and distinguishes himself. He is noticed by the White House head of staff and is offered a chance to work on the President s staff of servants. He is cast into a new world of service where he works hard and distinguishes himself. At home, Cecil is married to a dutiful wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and has two strapping young boys. The elder, Louis (David Oyelowo) studies hard but looks down on his father s occupation thinking he is an Uncle Tom. This is the beginning of a struggle between the two men as the butler has to work and live within the white structure and the son fights against Jim Crowe laws as he attends college in the South of the 1960s.
SCOTT: Greg, this is an impressive movie. I thought the filmmakers did a stellar job of chronicling the lifespan of a man who not only lived through radical changes in American society, but also witnessed the U.S. government machinery that either helped or hindered the transformation. Forest Whitaker deserves great kudos for a highly moving performance. You can see both pain and his dignity in his every word and facial expression. I can easily envision Whitaker being nominated for Best Actor here.
GREG: This is an epic story spanning 80 years and 11 presidencies. That s no mean feat. Director Lee Daniels pulls double duty here as he shows not only the life of a black man who grew up in the South and learns to live in the white man s world, but also parallels that story with Cecil s son Louis who wants to change the unfair system of separate but equal and raise blacks to full equality. The two men clash as we watch Louis go through the phases of the Civil Rights struggle from non-violent sit-ins to the militant Black Panther party. It was not an easy task and Daniels nearly pulled it off.
SCOTT: I was fascinated by the trajectory of the father-son relationship. There is a close bond to start, but their relations are strained when Louis adopts a more militant strategy in dealing with civil rights than does his father, who prefers to set an example quietly. It was very rewarding to see how the two men s positions converge. Louis softens while his father gets tougher. This duel transformation was portrayed powerfully and realistically. Cecil finds his voice and re-connects with his son, and in this way we have a hero journey that thoroughly satisfies its audience.
GREG: If I have a criticism of The Butler it is that it was too light on the history. While many of the major events of the Civil Rights movement were depicted, they weren t clearly explained. A case in point is the Freedom Riders. We re told that Louis is a Freedom Rider but we aren t told what that means. For younger viewers (and those of us who aren t overly schooled in history) a line or two of dialog about the significance of that event would have been valuable. Still, following two heroes on their separate tracks through the same period in time was a powerful device. First growing up with Cecil from the plantation to his role on the White House staff and then having him collide with the next generation of black men with a completely different way of thinking made for a sharp contrast that kept me entertained while I was also educated.
SCOTT: As long as we re picking nits, I had a problem with some of the casting choices. As I said, Forest Whitaker hits a grand slam home run with his performance, and David Oyelowo and David Banner, cast as his two sons, deliver the goods as well. But they dropped the ball completely in their casting of the Presidents. Robin Williams did not work at all as Dwight Eisenhower. And Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, and Alan Rickman were poor choices for Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, respectively. Rather than using these Hollywood elite, who were no doubt thrilled to be part of this project, it would have been wiser to cast more obscure actors who better resemble these presidents. Casting Oprah as Cecil s wife was also a curious choice. She did a fine job in that role, but Oprah is so larger-than-life that it s difficult to see her as anyone but Oprah.
GREG: I noticed that too - as well as the irony of liberal left-wing Hanoi Jane Fonda cast as Nancy Reagan. That was just funny. I was very pleased that this film did not fall into the typical plot solution that other similar films have fallen into. In last May s 42, last year s The Help and 2010 s The Blind Side black heroes are aided by benificent white altruists. But in The Butler we see black men raising themselves up by virtue of their own strength and courage. For a good bit of epic storytelling that covers a lot of ground, despite missing some important historical detail, I give The Butler 5 out of 5 Reels. And for a surprise dual-hero story with both heroes finding common ground I award The Butler 5 Heroes. Movie: Hero:
SCOTT: The Butler is a must-see movie that vividly portrays the heroic life of a butler who is both witness to, and a participant in, the Civil Rights movement in America. There s no doubt that this film will be nominated for Best Picture, and there s a high likelihood of nominations for Best Director and Screenplay as well. For me, The Butler fell just short of reaching the rarified air of 5 Reels, but it does earn a quite impressive 4 Reels out of 5. The hero journey is compelling in its complexity. We see a father-son relationship that evolves and results in a satisfying departure from the usual atonement with the father . What actually transpires is an atonement with the son , which becomes a central part of Cecils transformation. Our hero Cecil grows as an individual in ways that fascinate us, and we cannot help but admire his courage, intelligence, resilience, and honor as a man. I happily award this film a full 5 Heroes out of 5. Movie: Hero:
When we live in a world where we have seen only the outside never the inside we know all to well what life is like out here. When we see we brought inside when others seek righteousness in there actions, we see we have a chance to live life on the inside. When we see that life is different from the inside and outside to know we are expected to serve differently with how others see fit. When we see being who we are and being seen this way has its downsides when we are not wanted, not given a chance and kept to remain on the outsides. When we see how hard it is to bust our way through life. When we see the person that changed our life for the better, kept us out of trouble, gave us a purpose and made us see a possibility that we are good in we see how life us like on the inside again. When the realities of the world we can't see but change is coming to only not being seen, care what others want, be the best servant in the eyes of those whom accept us on the inside. When we see we are not dumb but have good things to say we see eye to eye on some people. When we see what we do we made a living do it, when we see a happy family to come to. When we see we made a greater impression on some people to know we are in good company to send the word of reference to those higher up. When we see that we not only serve a certain colour with dignity but those above when we see how life was down below to know we treat those above extra special. When we see we naturally make a good impression on people when we share the finer tastes as they do. When we see what others see that we don't see, it's a perfect fit for us that we don't know what others are seeing. When we have seen it all, those climbing for chance, those whom have it, those who continually understand what it's like to be given a chance to work extra hard especially in places where it's hard to reach on our own. When we see life is changing when it is not like before and we see getting chances are easier for some and harder for others when they accept the current views of today. When we see that life is different in other places when we see that we can bask in our culture and lifestyle the way life intended. When others don't see what we see when there are greater things worth seeing and believing in, we see that giving a chance is harder to come by for others whom wish to be more then what others see happy to be in. When others share in such unhappiness to not see what we see when life is not good enough for them to only want more. When naturally we fit in when we see we are a bunch of servants ready to serve nothing more. When we do see that life does have its minor obstacles along the way that we stay clear from, don't judge, listen, don't involve ourselves when we are not meant to be seen. When we wish to be seen when we like what we see in ourselves and people to not hide from it or be deprived of it. When who we are others see past and see deeper than what's above to only see the little we have to offer that others feel there should be more. When we see that progress takes time to make their necessary steps into building what we see fit. When we don't normally get to see what others want we naturally go see what they want and ask. When we see every vote counts and every bit of help can push for us to win, we try and see if influence and campaigning everywhere to spread the word. When we see we could use some help spreading the message to be seen. When we see eye to eye on some people who have made countless ground of progress in revolt to see we like what we see when it's change for the good. When we see ourselves as educated people to see thst we expect a little more respect and dignity. When we see that life is different in some places, where some people like it this way and others want more to see change is harder to gain when many don't see it our way and see us as the problem starters and agitators that font follow the rules. When we see life in some parts has its standards and orders to follow that must be followed or be sent out. When we see such radical beliefs are not wanted in places that provide us alot. When not many share in what we see to see it another way when what gets us to be seen and heard is by serving it and contributing to making it better. When we can't get past the past like others can do to see the world for what it is. When we get past the past to only see the present we enjoy what it provides for our family, that not many get the opportunity to see. When we see the deep rooted nature of those in charge we want no part in what we see when it's not what we stand for or wish to see. When we want to see the end to such strife to only party our woes at a new direction. When we see we will no longer see our family the same way again when it splits us apart, when we don't see somethings coming. When what we need to see and pay a visit we are not welcome when they don't see we have changed and not doing what we see is right. When we see the aftermath of what others disagree in seeing we stand over the changing times of what we see and watch over time. When other things we see we can push for change we do so but see others dont see eye to eye with us in voting us in. When what others dont see or know they don't see what good could have come to us in what we have seen or become. When what others do know and see they still see the same thing they hate in not what our country represents. When we see our family has always took a stand to see what's right to follow in their steps to see a new change as little and insignificant it may be. When we are not seen as we used to when those days are over to be seen as a new change and era in society that we welcome those different. When we get to see what it is like on the other side to see where we belong and and how we are looked at from others point of view. When we get a taste of what we never belonged and thought we could never see ourselves being to see what we have been missing out on our whole life and what others have been fighting to maintain us in that we couldn't see. When we see so kindly on the other things for being there for them, serving them, and providing for them that we all see we had a good thing that it's natural we lose sight on others we can't balance. When we see now when it's not too late to change directions and make others see the light of what others wish to see. When not everybody can live how we do to see what we are missing out on to see that we have a second chance at doing it right. When we see what others see and let them know. When we see progress takes time, when we seen it all, served our country and we get to see progress take place when we finally see our people in high places not serving but leading. When we finally see what equality looks and feel like to know what others wish to fight to see. When we don't know what it means to be seen and recognized to know how it changes our direction and views in a positive direction that we are able to see all what we want progress for years to come and live to see their rights are not taken from them but given the same opportunities as others to live in this world undivided and disconnected. When we see our time eventually comes and we have to leave this world and places to leave behind our greatest works and stories for history to see and future generations to read and follow to know what it takes to see what other great leaders and servants get to see the priveldges to live in the times of great change forever making our mark as small and unwritten as it maybe on our culture, people and country to which we see is our home.
When receiving the lowest perspective of life to seeing how much progress unfold through the eyes of others to deliver the greatest perspectives to those whom can't see and solely rely on your views from those below and above to know what's best for the country. When all eyes are on the world and your boss but not on you to know how unimportant you are to others but important to the ones you serve. An uncredited important mark on history unseen in the history books.
This story is very well told. The primary story of Cecil and his family is interwoven with many short stories of historically significant people such as former US Presidents, all intertwined in a logical and cohesive way, although you can't expect to really know much about each President from this. There's no depth to the Presidents. It's more the story of Cecil and his family, after all.
For me, the very beginning of the movie is very significant: Cecil's mother is abused and his father is murdered on one tragic day when he is a young boy. He spends the rest of his youth serving his father's murderer and his family, quietly, calmly, and carefully, until he leaves before he too, ends up dead at his father's killer's hands. The one word that I think best describes Cecil is: survivor.
Would Cecil have made it if, when he broke into a place to steal food, the person who discovered him hadn't helped him? Probably not. There are times when someone's compassion and understanding can be an elevator from hell to heaven. This man took him and gave him a job and was an amazing surrogate father to him.
This movie explains the Civil Rights movement in an understandable way, including why it needed to happen and some of those involved in it happening, including Cecil's own son, whom he pretty much disowned for being involved in the Freedom Rides. Those Freedom Rides and the beatings and jailings his son went through helped bring about change. And yet, there is a great deal about the Civil Rights movement that didn't make it into this.
The personal story of Cecil's wife battling alcoholism was also in the mix, adding dimension to the story.
I thought it was very significant that their son Louis went through so much and yet walked away from the Black Panthers when he discovered they were about revenge, including killing. He even gave up his girlfriend because she was a Black Panther and he wasn't going to be. Tragically, his other son Charlie makes the ultimate sacrifice for his country, dying patriotically in a controversial war.
Interesting that under President Reagan Cecil finally got fair pay, after decades at 40% of the pay rate of a white worker in the same type of job.
Finally meeting the first black President was clearly very moving for Cecil. It was heartwarming to see this dream come true for the old butler. And nice to see a reconciliation, after all those years, between father and son.
The movie portrays Obama as a hero to Cecil just for being black and President at the same time. The movie just doesn't really show us enough of the good or the bad to give a true picture of Obama. There's simply an understanding of wonderful, solely based on the color of his skin.
I have so many problems with this film. To start, the film opens with the claim that it is based on THE true story, as if there is only one true story. But the story isn't even true. The real butler's name wasn't Cecil Grimes. It was Eugene Allen. In the film, Cecil has two sons, one of whom joins the Black Panthers and the other who goes off to fight in Vietnam. Eugene had one son who neither was a political activist nor served his country in battle. In the film, Cecil watched his father get murdered by a lecherous employer on a cotton field in Georgia. Eugene, apparently, grew up on a Virginia plantation. So what was true in the story?
Yes, there were Freedom Riders. These were activist black and white (to use the terms in use at the time) university students who rode interstate buses together in the American South and, yes, many of them were beaten up by racist mobs. Yes, it took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to extend equal civil rights to all Americans regardless of the colour of their skin. Yes, America now has an African-American president and yes, there really was a White House butler who served seven presidents. But there was so much creative license used in the film, I half-expected Cecil to claim he was related to Kunta Kinte, the character made famous in the book and TV series, ROOTS.
Oh, and don't get me started on the characterizations of the various presidents. What a joke! Robin Williams played Dwight D. Eisenhower, even though he looked more like Harry Truman. James Marsden (of X-Men fame) played John Kennedy, Liev Schreiber - wearing an obvious prosthetic on his nose - played Lyndon Johnson, John Cusack - also sporting a bad nose job - played Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman played Ronald Reagan. I thought I was watching a series of comedy sketches on Saturday Night Live. It's too bad there wasn't a part in the film for Sarah Palin so that we could enjoy Tina's Fey's sendup of her. The only impersonation that was any good was Jane Fonda's creepy portrayal of Nancy Reagan.
This is a story that should have been a made-for-TV miniseries, just as ROOTS was almost 40 years ago. The film features a cast of some of Hollywood's most respected African-American actors today including Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Clarence Williams III, Lenny Kravitz, David Oyelowo and Elijah Kelley. Even Mariah Carey makes an appearance. Blink and you'll miss her.
And that's the big problem I have with the film. It covers so much history in its 2:12 running time that every scene is distilled down to a brief snippet. As a result, characters become stereotypes and we're left thinking that Cecil is simply an African-Americant version of Forrest Gump. World-altering events happen to him and his family while he goes about serving drinks to rich white boys.
Many people have argued that kids need to watch this film in order to learn about the American civil rights movement but there are better films than this. I would recommend MISSISSIPPI BURNING (1988), SCOTTSBORO: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (2000), FROM SWASTIKA TO JIM CROW (2000), and THE ROSA PARKS STORY (2002).
In the meantime, give this film a miss.