'The Butler' Reviews: Mostly Positive Notices Despite Lee Daniels' Lack Of Restraint
Lee Daniels' The Butler sets out to shed a light on American history through the eyes of White House domestic worker Cecil Gaines (Forest Whittaker). Gaines has seen his father murdered at the hands of malevolently racist white men, has lived through segregation and served President John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) – in addition to 6 other POTUSes. The all-star ensemble sees Oprah Winfrey take on Cecil’s wife, Robin Williams play Eisenhower and British actor Alan Rickman take on Ronald Reagan.
The film’s narrative is sweeping and impassioned; the big names of the cast manage to disappear into the roles of well-known faces and personalities. Critics' major gripe, however, is that Lee Daniels' filmmaking errs towards the sentimental at times and pedagogical at others. Yet, despite the film’s perceived handicaps, the power of the story perseveres, leaving a movie worth seeing and a story that holds value as a lens through which to see the country’s often troubled history. Below, a collection of critics' comments:
“A history lesson in violence and endurance. A sentimental journey. A tribute. Director Daniels and the dedicated cast of The Butler deliver all that. […] The performances are sharply nuanced. Winfrey's turn is carnal and wise; Gloria is a mix of love, frustration, and need. David Oyelowo is responsible for the greatest arc as Cecil and Gloria's son Louis. Elijah Kelley provides sweetly fresh moments as younger son, Charlie. The father-son conflict provides a believable parable about the strategic tensions in the black community over the best course to equality. The parent-child conflict reverberates beyond politics — or race.” – Lisa Kennedy, The Denver Post
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“Is the subservience that makes Cecil a success as a butler (“You hear nothing; you see nothing; you only serve,” he’s told early on at the White House) something to be admired or decried? Is Cecil someone, as a character in the film points out, who by virtue of being hardworking and trustworthy defies racial stereotypes and advances his people? No, his powerlessness, ultimately, is something shameful. But even as Daniels strains to emphasize the impotence Cecil feels, as he watches cavalier decisions about black men being made by white men, the director can’t resist the commercial impulse to make Cecil a hero. And you can’t quite have it both ways without making a movie with a personality disorder. – John Anderson, The Washington Post
"Directed by Lee Daniels, who created one showy success (“Precious”) and one quirky flop (“The Paperboy”), the result is an uneven, sometimes stirring historical drama that can be both heavy-handed and enjoyably sly. At its best, it uses the 1950s/1960s as “Mad Men” does: to illuminate the past by bringing it into focus, often as if for the very first time. Even at its worst, it prefers to stimulate rather than launch another noisy parade of stereotypes." – John Hartl, The Seattle Times
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is neither as good as it might have been nor as bad as survivors of "The Paperboy" may have feared. An ambitious and overdue attempt to create a Hollywood-style epic around the experience of black Americans in general and the civil rights movement in particular, it undercuts itself by hitting its points squarely on the nose with a 9-pound hammer.” – Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times.
Lee Daniel’s The Butler, rated PG-13, is currently in wide release. It also stars David Banner, Mariah Carey, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, John Cusack, Liev Schreiber, Jane Fonda and Minka Kelly.
– Chelsea Regan
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