‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ Review

Published 2 years ago by , Updated November 9th, 2014 at 6:52 pm,

lee daniels butler review Lee Daniels The Butler Review

The final movie result is part lackluster biopic, part ham-fisted (and somewhat misguided) historical allegory, despite the noble intentions of the cast and filmmakers involved.

For those unaware, The Butler was renamed Lee Daniels’ The Butler in response to a lawsuit filed by Warner Bros. (which claimed the rights to the original title). The historical drama is based upon the life and times of the late Eugene Allen: an African-American who was employed as a “pantry man,” then as a butler, and eventually as the maître d’hôtel in the White House from 1952 to 1986. By the time he retired, Allen had worked for seven different U.S. presidents, during a period of time in which the American social landscape began to undergo radical changes.

Daniels’ movie stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, the character inspired by the real-life Eugene Allen. Cecil starts from humble beginnings working as a child house servant on a cotton farm in the 1920s, but grows up to become a successful butler – that is, before he accepts an offer to become a member of the care-taking staff for the Oval Office. However, the long hours demanded by Cecil’s job take their toll on his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey); not to mention, Cecil’s dedication to the White House puts him at odds with his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo), when the latter becomes an iron-willed participant in the American Civil Rights Movement.

Director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong (Game Change) have taken a number of liberties with the source article written by Will Haygood, “A Butler Well Served by This Election”, in an attempt to transform Allen’s life and times into a larger metaphor for conflicting ideologies within the African-American community, regarding the best way to instigate social progress/reform in the U.S. during the second half of the 20th century. The final movie result is part lackluster biopic, part ham-fisted (and somewhat misguided) historical allegory, despite the noble intentions of the cast and filmmakers involved.

lee daniels butler oprah whitaker Lee Daniels The Butler Review

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker as Gloria and Cecil Gaines

Unfortunately, The Butler script from Strong casts such a wide net that it winds up being the source of many problems in the film. Strong’s narrative – which (and you’re bound to soon be tired of hearing this) can best be summarized as a Forrest Gump-esque look at history – attempts to use each member of the Gaines clan as a symbol representing the collective experience of different demographics of the African-American community – while still allowing each of them to function as a three-dimensional character. Because of this, Cecil, Gloria and Louis each wind up having a complete, yet half-coooked and only partly satisfying arc. Too often, they feel more like puppets being used by a storyteller to prove a political point, rather than real people (in terms of how the Gaines are written, that is).

With regards to his direction, Daniels struggles to put together a story that is well-paced and tightly-structured – which results in a film that often feels ungainly and repetitive. The grainy, yet luminescent, cinematography by Andrew Dunn – who collaborated with Daniels before on Precious – gives the film a pleasant look (even though his and Daniels’ shot choices and composition tends to be uninteresting). However, some of the transitional edits by Joe Klotz have a tendency to be clunky – though, probably only hardcore movie buffs and actual filmmakers will notice. Others are more likely to observe how scenes of well-groomed Cecil and his peers working in the White House are frequently juxtaposed with footage of Louis risking his life to battle for equality in the dirty and dangerous streets of America. Problem is, this approach more often than not comes across as hammy, not poetic – and reaches the point of overkill when it is repeated several times throughout the film.

lee daniels butler oyelowo Lee Daniels The Butler Review

David Oyelowo in ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’

This is where The Butler starts to feel “misguided,” in terms of how the film blends together the feel-good nature of Cecil’s storyline with the brutal realism of Louis’ journey. Daniels’ movie doesn’t come across as schizophrenic in the way it moves back and forth between the separate narrative threads – yet, at the same time, the setting never consistently feels like either a heightened version of reality or an honest representation of the historical U.S. Sorry to say, the final outcome is that the scenes that are meant to be spiritually-uplifting feel somewhat insincere – while the sequences that depict violence against the black population occasionally end up seeming more exploitative than unflinchingly honest.

What saves the movie from being a real mess are the strong performances from the cast, with Whitaker, Oyelowo and Winfrey all proving willing to forgo dramatic showboating in favor of more humble and poignant acting. Similarly, actors like Cuba Gooding Jr. (Red Tails) and Lenny Kravitz (The Hunger Games) bring a sense of real humanity to the roles of Cecil’s longtime co-workers at the White House, as does Terrence Howard (Dead Man Down) as one of the Gaines’ close friends; likewise, Colman Domingo (Lincoln) and Vanessa Redgrave (Coriolanus) make the most of their brief screen-time, as noteworthy characters who Cecil encounters in life. It’s too bad, though, that musicians/actors David Banner and Mariah Carey as Cecil’s parents are only featured onscreen long enough to suffer at the hands of a vicious plantation head (flatly played by Alex Pettyfer, armed with silly facial hair).

lee daniels butler rickman fonda Lee Daniels The Butler Review

Jane Fonda and Alan Rickman as Nancy and Ronald Reagan

The cast members who play U.S. presidents and their wives in the film are very much footnotes in the story, so each only has a couple minutes to produce either a strong or weak caricature of a real historical figure. As such, the better ones in the film include James Marsden (2 Guns) and Minka Kelly (Friday Night Lights) as John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy, along with Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan) as Lyndon B. Johnson – as well as Alan Rickman (Harry Potter) and Jane Fonda (The Newsroom) as Ronald and Nancy Reagan. In the not-so-memorable category, we have Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Cusack as Richard Nixon. (The latter, in particular, is unimpressive and seems incapable of maintaing a Nixon-ian voice.)

What’s frustrating about The Butler – when you consider the film as a whole – is that it was clearly produced with decent intentions. Yet, the movie winds up taking the meaningful lessons that can be learned from studying the real Eugene Allen’s life – and turns his story into a cinematic sermon about history that is told from a different perspective, but offers limited insight with regard to the major topics that it deals with. At the end of the day, Haygood’s source article is more interesting and moving for one simple reason: it just tells Allen’s story, no exaggeration included (or necessary).

For those who are still undecided about whether or not to see the film, here is the trailer for The Butler:

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The Butler is 132 minutes long and Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking. Now playing in theaters.

Our Rating:

2.5 out of 5
(Fairly Good)

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  1. Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan is insulting and enough for me not to want to see this movie.

    • But Oprah….

    • +1

      I don’t think it was an accident though. We all know most of Hollywood are on one side of the political fence, but most of them pretty much keep it to themselves and is just a personal opinion, but this movie cast a bunch of actors who are pretty much activist level to portray conservative characters… Hanoi Jane as Nancy Reagan is definitely the worst of it all though… Casting Kelsey Grammer as Eisenhower would have made too much sense I guess…

      • Not just your opinion…mine as well. I’m sure you heard that CNN and NBC are in the process of producing a miniseries and movie about Hillary Clinton, and just in time for the 2016 election. They don’t even pretend to be unbiased and impartial anymore…

      • Jane is a wonderful actress. She plays a conservative in Newsroom and does a great job. I don’t understand why people hate on this lady so much. I don’t agree with some of her views, but yet can appreciate her talent.

    • Republican tears are delicious.

  2. MARIAH CAREY! Can anyone tell me how much screen time the woman actually gets? I’m pretty sure she has a smaller part in this film than she did in Precious.

  3. Sounds very season one of ‘The Newsroom’ Aaron Sorkin-esque. A lot of the reviews have turned me off from this. I don’t feel the need to be emotionally manipulated by a movie, be it by sledgehammer technique of narrative, editing or an overly emotional soundtrack. Last movie I saw that offended me in this manner was ‘Shame’, a movie that pretty much spent its entire running time shouting at me how important the movie was. No. It wasn’t.

    I suspect this won’t be either. Nice review, Mr Schaefer.

    • Ill match your shame and go extremely loud and incredibly close

    • That’s why I refuse to watch Zero Dark Thirty

      If it had been made and released any time in future (or even better, with a fictional terrorist, original characters and “loosely based” without actually saying so on the actual events) then I wouldn’t have minded so much.

      The problem is, ZDT seems to be one of those movies that is guaranteed success in America as well as Oscar wins (both of which happened…hmm…) purely because it’s a propaganda style “We got him! Yeah! ‘Murica!” film.

      I put it in the same category as post-World War 2 movies from both sides of the Atlantic that just seem to be chest-beating pieces devoid of anything other than to show off to the other kids in the playground. Really turns me off when a movie or TV show gets really in your face with the political message.

      I like to be entertained or made to think with a movie, not beat over the head with patriotic propaganda and told what to think and how to think it. I’d compare it to a movie written and filmed in the US and dominating the Oscars purely because the plot is basically “guns are good, buy more guns”.

      Hell, I haven’t seen The Hurt Locker either because it looked terrible when the trailers first appeared on TV and then when I read more about it, it seemed like one of those horrendous “yay, we kick so much ass” movies I mentioned in the above paragraphs. Surprise surprise, it was directed by the same woman who gave us ZDT.

      It’s a shame this movie seems to avoid telling a much more important story as far as the review seems to tell us.

      • A reflexive thought process through the unconscious mind is the more proper purpose( if any) of the movie. Some may agree that patriotic and even nationalistic views are directed however, the movie has different lenses through which you can derive different themes and emotions.

        • Best picture shoulda been life of pi or silver linings playbook imo

        • I couldn’t get past the first five minutes of Argo, with their immediate implication that America was responsible for the actions of the Iranian’s who took over the Embassy. Zero Dark Thirty was a tremendous surprise to me, I thought it would be a long Obama fest but actually it was nothing like that. It is certainly something any conservative can watch without worrying about constant partisan bashing.

      • Why are you targeting zero dark thirty??? I went in with no expectations and came out with a sense of shock and awe. It was an excellent movie that pulled no punches. The lead up to the raid on OBL’s compound was far more exciting then the pay off…of which the movie was hyped & sold to the public, being a former war veteran I breathed a sigh of relief at the end because it really did feel like a symbolic & legitimate closure to the end of the war…(the movie did coincide with the end of operations in Iraq.)I was gut punched by the thought of how many lives have been lost in this war. How loyalties & allegiances were constantly tested, won & lost.

        And I’ve never understood people who judge a movie without having seen it first…its pompous & arrogant to assume a movie is a propaganda machine when ZDT makes no claims to be. Jessica Chastain is a conflicted & complex amalgamation of real people as are her cohorts who question the war at every turn…. ZDT was as much a procedural as any of the shows on TV…IE CSI, Law & order: SVU etc.

    • Emotional manipulation is controlled by the viewer, the rhetoric of the film may be enough to impact the audience but some reviews may contradict those intents. It is up to the viewer to create their own judgement and not let their ego manipulate their own thoughts about the movie.

  4. Somehow I picture this being re-released in time for awards season…

  5. This was actually one of the best movies I have seen in a ong time!!

  6. I refuse to see this movie because of Jane Fonda.

  7. Jesus, most of the people posting here are probably 2 generations removed from Jane Fonda and you’re STILL grinding an axe over something that you probably read about on the internet that happened almost 50 years ago.


    Aside from that this movie looks boring as hell. I do not drop $30 for my wife and I to go to contemporary snooze fests. We like to go to escapist event type of movies. I might rent this, some day.

    • Significant events can impact an audience for generations to come. Escapist films are directed to those who are unable to deal with the reality or truth of certain circumstances. For example the story of the city of Omelias is a great example of the people who are aware of reality and truth against lies.

    • Well, it’s good to know that there’s an expiration date to traitorous acts…

      • It is essential to essential to pay attention to the reality and the history behind this particular movie as well rather than personal opinions and emotions

    • Treason is still treason.

  8. I hate movies like this one.

  9. Loved the movie, I dont expected most people to get this movie, but if you were raised in the south like I was you can appreciate a film, like this one. A true story, unlike most of this bull—- movies they have out now. Go watch, you might learn something about history.

    • This didn’t follow history at all. It is a slanted political message that doesn’t even work as a decent movie. Why would anyone turn to this to catch up on some historical fact. By the way I am also from the south but that doesn’t mean I want to be fed altered history lessons so a political party can get their message out. Stick closer to the facts and don’t make up LIES.

  10. wooooownjustngot back from this flick…2 stars? woooow thisnwas a good four imo great acting from everybody

  11. …I think its a gross misjudgement on your part to think that the violence and struggles the African Americans in the movie faced were “heightened versions of reality”. The problems these characters faced were real. And I have NO idea why you think they were exaggerated at all. Abused, battered, slaughtered terrorized, all of these are accurate words to described African Americans through out american history, and this movie showed just that. I just don’t understand why you think they had to exaggerate anything….

  12. I loved this film. Lee Daniels is a brilliant director. The images and emotion in this film were burned into my heart and mind. There were many audience members who cried the entire film, and this is only the second film I’ve seen this year to receive a hand clap of praise from the audience at its conclusion.

    This was a beautiful redemptive story of a father and son set with the civil rights and Jim Crow era as the backdrop. It conveys an incredibly strong narrative that takes us through the life of an African American growing up and living during the not-so-distance turbulent past of America all the way through the current day; and it is able to capture the significance of what the first president of color means to that generation. As a result, I’m better able to understand the mind and heart of someone like my parents and my grandparents.

    I typically align with the film reviews of Screen Rant. I’ve tried, but I must admit that Sandy really loses me with his reviews. The Butler and The Way Way Back are two of my favorite movies of the year.

  13. This movie sucked, Trying to make out that president Ronald Reagan was a racist. Just another left movie that wasn’t worth watching. The next lie told by liberals will be the Hillary Clinton story. You the “what difference does it make that 4 Americans died” lady. They will surly leave that part of life story.

    • The fact that you would even quote Mrs. Clinton as that’s exactly what she said, makes any point you have void. Lol You give the right a bad name. Stop going above and beyond to express your political views where they aren’t necessary. It only serves to make you look obsessive and crazed. Lol Not a good look.

    • *As if

  14. this was a beautiful movie! hands down my favorite of 2013 and light years superior to that “award winning” colossal letdown of Lincoln.

    i saw this reluctantly as i’m not a fan of the “acting” by either forest whitaker or oprah in anything they’ve done, but this story is so well woven with important lessons regarding the evolution of our nation, and more importantly, our own families.

    this was a terrible review by screen rant – a bumbling incoherent mess in need of a spell checker, so far off base with every sentence. the author clearly missed all of those lessons lee daniels provides us.

    this movie was powerful – humbling in exposing America’s brutal/ugly past. it addresses polarizing racism, the struggles of parenthood, and the illusions of time in our lives. most of all it made me appreciate the love i have felt from my own family over the years.

    i agree with immortal on this. this is a top notch film.

  15. I would have to say that this movie was a good movie to watch. After a long weekend my wife and I decided not to watch something that was flashy and settled for this one. I loved all of the actors, and they did a great job. Everybody saying they don’t like this actor or that actor because of their political beliefs are ignorant individuals that just like to talk until the white foam appears at the corners of their mouths despite proving a point. These guys are actors and are doing their job. I certainly don’t care what their political beliefs are.

    I enjoyed the different point of views within the same household. The film was crafted very well and I hope everyone was able to see the message that was being delivered. It was not political propaganda; gees I think I can find more of that in today’s childrens movies. You would have to be part of the minority crowd to understand the struggle; have fun with that last comment guys.

    Ha! Goodnight.

  16. No stars. What an awful movie.

  17. This movie was amazing and real and people need exposure exposure exposure!!! 5 stars! Thumbs up!! Woop woop !

  18. This movie would have been okay except for the gratuitous shots of Oprah’s gnarled old gash. I can’t believe how many times the director slipped in shots of that hairy, festering thing. It looked like an old catcher’s mitt that a dog had been chewing on. Why they had to include it in the movie is beyond me.