Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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butler USEEERemember the long, bizarre title of the movie Precious? This movie could’ve easily been called “Lee Daniels’ The Butler Starring Oprah Winfrey featuring Forest Whitaker, and wife-beater Terrence Howard.”

Instead, it’s just those first four words. And as much as I hear about Oprah claiming racism in the famous handbag incident – and her banning Ludicrous from her show because she finds his rapping objectionable – I’d sure love to hear her take on Howard. He’s been charged multiple times with punching women. Instead, she plays his neighbor in the movie and tells everyone in interviews it’s an important piece of history that everyone should see.

I’d agree, but just wish it didn’t trot through various historical moments in a fashion that took away the powerful nature of those incidents.

The opening is painfully bad (slave owner rapes a woman and shoots her husband). It’s a cockamamie cliché that would’ve been a lot more powerful in a subtle way.

Since the movie is based on a true story about a butler that served many administrations in the White House – I think a more honest treatment of his life would’ve served the viewer better. That doesn’t mean its heart isn’t in the right place. I certainly cried a few times, and the last 15 minutes I adored.

The butler in this rises through the ranks to be head maitre d, and eventually gets the black staff to make the same wages the white employees make.

We see him as a child working cotton fields in Macon, Georgia in the mid-20s. He witnesses the shooting of his father, when all the man wanted to do was confront the slave owner that raped her.

I immediately thought about how when I was leaving 42 (the Jackie Robinson movie from earlier this year), I heard a woman say, “Did that stuff really happen?”

So yes, it is important for people to learn these disgusting things did happen. I just don’t need a slave owner that does it without trying to cover up what he’s doing. He struts out of the shed buttoning his pants and putting his overalls on. Would it really have gone down like that?

Other scenes giving us the history of blacks in America come across in a way that made me think any minute Forrest Gump was going to go jogging down Pennsylvania Avenue. And what makes this all so frustrating is the fact that, a few of the real events that happened to this real butler (Richard Nixon sneaking into the kitchen for a cookie, and to secure the black vote) – make me wonder why a screenwriter instead decided to write a completely fictional account of his life. Isn’t that a slap in the face to the real struggles Eugene Allen dealt with?

There are lots of big names in this. For example, that quick opening rape scene involved Mariah Carey, Alex Pettyfer, and Vanessa Redgrave. The bigger characters are all going to be mentioned around Oscar time.

Oprah is great; and just as I enjoyed the way Denzel Washington played an alcoholic in Courage Under Fire, subtly works so much better. It’s so much more powerful listening to Winfrey being drunk, and going on about Jackie O’s shoes or speaking French – instead of being mad Whitaker comes in late and throwing a vase at his head.

Whitaker is great in an understated way, although it’s odd that he looked nothing like the younger version of his character.

Cuba Gooding, Jr. brings a likeability to his role, but Lenny Kravitz and his sleepy eyes were a bit out of place. He worked in Precious as the male nurse. The girls were all ga-ga over him. It also takes you out of the movie when the other butlers tell him that “perhaps he should start a band.”

The two sons are wonderfully played (Elijah Kelley and David Oyelowo). The younger one adds touches of humor, and ends up going off to Vietnam. The older one ends up as a Freedom Rider, and we get a very powerful scene showing the Woolworth’s sit-in and a KKK protest. Yet when he’s in Memphis getting words of wisdom about his dad from Martin Luther King, Jr. right before the assassination – it just becomes a bit much. I would’ve preferred King saying these words to him (which convey the fact that his dad may not be militant, but is helping the cause), and having him catch the news of King’s murder on a TV from prison.

I won’t spoil things by telling you how the Vietnam story plays out, but it’s done horribly. It’s such a shame that the movie gets so many scenes wrong. The powerful ones showed just how much potential this had at becoming a great epic picture.

There’s a scene where David Oyelowo returns as a Black Panther. It was so smartly written. The kid isn’t over-the-top with his militant attitude, but when he says something negative about his dad (after already riling him up with his take on Sidney Poitier) – Oprah hauls off and slaps him. She shouts, while explaining how being a butler helped pay for his college and gave them a roof over their heads. When she tells her son to leave, it gave me shivers.

Then you have to sit through other scenes where John Cusack is playing Richard Nixon. Huh? These types of cameos become more of a distraction. Sure, Jane Fonda worked as Nancy Reagan (Alan Rickman is Ronald); but Robin Williams as President Eisenhower? Many in the crowd laughed, half expecting Williams to talk in the Mrs. Doubtfire voice or something.

James Marsden captured the essence of JFK, but Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson, was bizarre as he barked orders from the toilet.

Instead of having these various Presidents in the way it was done – which felt like a bad attempt at a history lesson – I much preferred the scene where the butler is serving a President tea, and overhears a racist statement, yet doesn’t bat an eye.

As the butler works more hours, Oprah turns to booze and the attention of the neighbor Howard (played by the great actor, but real life wife abuser, Terrence Howard). It’s a rather hackneyed development, but Oprah does shine in the role.

Whitaker’s voiceover commentary never enhances much. He just states vague things like “I didn’t know if I was going to get home alive,” when a riot is breaking out. I think about how powerful the things were that were said by Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption – and in this I hear Whitaker saying, “I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from.”

The only narration that provided interesting insight was at a state dinner. He wasn’t there for work, but as an invited guest.

The movie is certainly ambitious and was obviously a labor of love for all those involved. It would’ve been nice to love watching it. You’ll never be bored during the two hours.

I’m taking a star away for them showing a clip of Jesse Jackson.

It gets 2 stars out of 5.

18 comments

  • SassyKid

    This movie critic is horrible. I have never read a positive review from this man and apparently, according to him, there is no such thing as a good film. Why doesn't Fox just cut to the chase and fire this guy and put up a banner stating apparently all films are bad. It would be better than wasting their money on this critic.

    Time to get some new blood in the critics circle.

    • Jo F.

      Josh — You owe me movie tickets for doing this.
      SassyKid — You need to research better. I just went back a few pages, and although he's given a few bad reviews to movies lately, of recent films he reviewed, he was lukewarm but positive to the following: Jobs (which other critics have hated), Lone Ranger (which most critics hated), 2 Guns. He gave good reviews to the following films: Cockneys vs Zombies, Wolverine, Wish You Were Here, Before Midnight, Frances Ha, What Maise Knew, Drew, The Way Way Back, This is the End, 20 Feet from Stardom, The East, Kings of Summer, and The Internship.
      Sure, most of those movies I haven't heard of but he gave positive reviews to those films. Care to chime in Josh?

  • Jo F.

    SassyKid: I just read a review for IN A WORLD…and he gave it four stars! Does it make a critic horrible if they don't like a lot of the movies you like? I am going to look back at all his reviews and see if you are right. I know he gave a bad review to something I liked a few weeks ago.

  • V.G.

    when he reviewed butler this morning, he would mention scenes he liked, as well as scenes he didn't like. i remember he did the same thing with the last superman movie. i don't think it was called superman, but whatev. he said the superman was good, a few scenes were good, but overall didn't like it. can't be more fair than that. i can usually never comment on critics opinions because i see so few movies. usually i see something like avatar or forest gump, only after everyone has been raving about them for months

  • John W Davis

    A movie critics job IS NOT to like every movie they see. They aren't supposed to be biased. They have an opinion just like everyone else does, only difference is they share their opinion of movies with those that choose to read their reviews. "Roots," "The Color Purple," "The Help" and now "The Butler." What's next ? Great honest "opinion" Josh

  • V.G.

    I read a few things regarding this movie that has to do with the Reagan administration. First, the fact that Jane Fonda played Nancy Reagan. Jane Fonda hated Ronald Reagan and there are still people that boycott her movies based on what she did during Vietnam. The real butler this movie is based on was apparently really good friends with Ronald Reagan. He even had pictures of him up in his house. Why would the movie portray Reagan as a racist? To get an agenda across?

  • joshboardfox5

    I don't mind that they made Reagan and the Butler not care for each other, since it's a fictional story. The problem I have is Lee Daniels wants it both ways. He wants to keep touting that this is based on a real person that was a butler in the White House. Fine. If you want all the praise for doing that, why did you create a son for him, to help tie all these racial things (shooting of Martin Luther King Jr, etc)? You can't have it both ways. Either make a biopic about the real butler (who probably had enough interesting things in his life to warrant a movie), or make a Forrest Gump style movie, but make this a black limo driver or something completely different. And it makes me cringe to keep hearing Lee Daniels and Oprah Winfrey on shows talking about how bad racism still is, and using Treyvon Martin/Zimmerman shooting as an example. THERE WAS NOT A SINGLE THING RACIAL ABOUT THAT SHOOTING!!!!!

    • Renee

      Mm hmm. Keep telling yourself that about the Trayvon Martin shooting. It was RACIAL right down the fucking line whether you like it or not.

  • joshboardfox5

    Renee — if it was racial, why weren't the FBI or police ever to determine that? Why didn't a single jury member feel that? In fact, let me ask you…WHAT about the case makes it appear racial to you? That a Latino/Caucasian shot a black teenager? There's a case with three black kids beating a white boy up on a school bus, while a black driver did nothing. Guess what? Not a racial thing about that, either. Sometimes things happen involving different races. As an African-American man said on a KFI call in show "If I saw a black guy, or any color guy, walking around my neighborhood at 11 p.m., I'm going to be a bit suspicious."
    Now, that being said…I would've loved Zimmerman to get some jail time. I'd love for gun laws to be a bit stricter, so that people like him didn't have access to the guns. Perhaps that's an argument you can stick with, instead of it being racial, because it wasn't. And until you prove it is (or at least bring something to the table), don't we have to give him the "benefit of the doubt"? I'm guessing when black people are on trial for crimes, you'd prefer the jury make the prosecutors prove "beyond a reasonable doubt." EVERY LAWYER on EVERY SHOW (all with differing opinions on the case), all agreed on one thing — there wasn't not enough evidence to prove Zimmerman guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt."

  • joshboardfox5

    Renee — One last thing. Does it bother you that Oprah keeps talking about the problems with racism in the country, yet doesn't seem to have a problem with a guy that has beat women multiple times (her co-star in the movie Terrance Howard).

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