Lee Daniels' The Butler Reviews
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.