Lee Daniels’ The Butler-attachment0

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Movie Information

The Story: Fact-based drama about the man who served as White House butler from Ike to Reagan. The Lowdown: Lee Daniels feels constrained with a PG-13 rating, but his film still resonates with honest emotion and solid filmmaking that manages to pack more than 80 years of story into two hours without feeling rushed.
Genre: Fact-Based Drama
Director: Lee Daniels (The Paperboy)
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard
Rated: PG-13

Lee Daniels’ The Butler — so named not to play to the director’s ego, but to settle a ridiculous title challenge from Warner Bros. — is a good, maybe very good, but not quite great film. Yes, it has the distinct odor of Oscar-Bait, but, as Roger Ebert once noted, that complaint is a little like damning a film for trying to be good. (It’s kind of funny that we await awards season anxiously and then complain about movies that try to win awards.) Its biggest flaw lies in its PG-13 rating and the constraints it places upon Lee Daniels, a director whose greatest strength is his ability to make overheated, trashy melodramas that have a surprisingly warm heart. There’s really nobody quite like him in film today, and while there’s a lot of Daniels on display in The Butler, there is an inescapable sense of restraint here. You can see it early on in the bloodless murder of the main character’s father. You can hear it in a raunchy joke where the punchline has been cleaned up by someone dropping a pan in post-production. You can sense it around every corner, but the film — and Daniels — both endure.

As you probably know, the film recounts the fact-based but freely adapted history of a man who served as the White House butler from the Eisenhower years into the Reagan era, charting his life from his days as the son of a sharecropper in 1926 to the Obama presidency. That’s a span of time that requires considerable condensing — only a small amount of time can be given to any single episode and years have to be brushed by in a hurry. The surprise here is that neither Daniels’ direction nor Danny Strong’s screenplay feels rushed or shortchanged. I honestly think that this is one area where the “star-studded” stunt casting pays off, because the characters take on some of our notions of the performers and seem more dimensional than they are.

It’s still stunt casting, though. Folks like Vanessa Redgrave (who really delivers) and Mariah Carrey are little more than fleeting appearances. Others aren’t much more seen. Some score (Alan Rickman’s Reagan). Some don’t (John Cusack’s Nixon). Nobody is actually embarrassing. But the film belongs mostly to Forest Whitaker — followed closely by Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelow. Whitaker impresses with ease, as does Oyelow (who was also in Daniels’ The Paperboy last year). That leaves us with Winfrey, and she’s fine. Still, her presence strikes me as more distracting than the entire roster of guest bits put together. Plus, the whole subplot about her quasi-affair with Terrence Howard’s character should have been cut. On the whole, though, I can’t fault her performance.

Sometimes Daniels’ film truly soars — as in the intercutting of a sit-in protest at a Woolworth lunch counter during an elaborate White House dinner scene. Most of the protest scenes carry the power of history but are elevated by the immediacy of the filmmaking, while the immediacy of the filmmaking is elevated by the honesty of the emotions. Daniels certainly flirts with greatness, and even if he doesn’t quite get there — except on occasion — he’s made a very worthy film. Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.

Playing at Carmike 10

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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20 thoughts on “Lee Daniels’ The Butler

  1. Jeremy Dylan

    This is the kind of film I’d only see if you liked it.

    I’ll be checking it out when it hits local screens come November.

  2. DrSerizawa

    Mariah Carey having a fleeting presence can only be for the good.

  3. Ken Hanke

    If you saw her in Daniels’ Precious, you’ll know that her performances in his films are in no way related to her pop star status.

    • Dionysis

      I did not see Precious. I think she’s just an okay singer, but abysmal as an ‘actor’. I don’t think I’m influenced by the pop star thing regarding any cross-overs. I was certainly not into Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, I assure you, but I’m usually impressed with Mark Wahlberg’s movie performances.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Other than Glitter — which is a personality vehicle and is awful — the only things I’ve ever seen her in are Precious and this.

    • Dionysis

      Yep, it was Glitter that exposed me to her in an acting capacity. I was able to endure about half of the film.

  5. DrSerizawa

    Since my idea of good music runs more along the lines of John Mayall or Canned Heat I can’t say that her musical caterwauling is any better than her “acting” skills.

  6. Ken Hanke

    So where exactly have you seen her acting skills? That’s really my point. Her acting resume is pretty thin and — Glitter apart — has no relation to her pop starness. I certainly have zero use for her singing — I’m more Beatles and Bowie personally.

  7. Ken Hanke

    Yep, it was Glitter that exposed me to her in an acting capacity.

    Brief glimpse of Glitter.

    Exactly my point. You’re basing it on a lousy movie built entirely around her pop star persona. And I would have said the same thing prior to Precious. I’m not a major supporter of the woman by any means, but I don’t cringe when I see her name — so long as she’s not going to sing.

    • Dionysis

      Yes, it is the only thing I have to base it on. But I’m not sure that being in a lousy movie necessarily means the acting has to be lousy. And one would think it would be a snap to play someone based upon their real self flawlessly.

      I’ve seen countless lousy movies but with individual performers turning in solid work.

      If I am ever in the mood to catch Precious, I would certainly be open-minded in terms of her performance, but there are probably a couple of hundred titles I’d rather see before I would that particular film. Not to disparage it at all, but it’s just not something of much interest to me.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Put it another way, would you care to assess Jack Nicholson’s career based on those Roger Corman movies? A lot of people start out giving less than stellar performances.

    • Dionysis

      A fair point; it remains to be seen whether Mariah Carey has the stuff to be offered roles in the foreseeable future. I’ll check back on her legacy from the beyond when I get there.

  9. DrSerizawa

    Mariah is also in Lee Daniel’s Tennessee which is on Netflix instant play for those who’d like to check out her thespian skillz. She’s not terrible, just sort of blah. I’m not sure that being better than Megan Fox is much of a recommendation.

    Put it another way, would you care to assess Jack Nicholson’s career based on those Roger Corman movies? A lot of people start out giving less than stellar performances.

    It’s all relative. Some of those Corman flicks were pretty good for that era. Mind you they were still showing those Monogram stinkers on TV at the time those Corman titles were airing. Though I doubt that Jack would include The Terror on his resume. He wasn’t bad in Little Shop of Horrors. No one would care about that though if the musical remake hadn’t been done.

    It’s hard to dial in a good performance when the director only allows one try.

    Be that as it may I reserve the right to dislike Mariah Carey on the screen because her warbling songs echo through my mind whenever I see her. Is that unfair? Yes.

  10. Ken Hanke

    From my review of Glitter: “Whether or not Mariah Carey can sing is a matter of personal opinion — though no character in the film misses a single carefully scripted opportunity to stroke Carey’s ego as a vocalist. There is no denying, of course, that she has the interesting capacity to hit notes that only dogs can hear, but even her staunchest admirers aren’t likely to make claims for her acting. This consists of freezing her face into an expression that is somewhere between a smirk and a grin. She’s also mastered the knack of looking sad. In Glitter she does both — a lot. It’s not all her fault. There are more than a few others responsible for perpetrating this collection of showbiz cliches and the most groan-inducing soap-opera plotting ever.”

    So I’m not exactly a fan. She’s almost unrecognizable in Precious in that she’s utterly glammed-down. It should be noted that this Tennessee thing — which I haven’t seen — is produced by Daniels, but is not his film.

    It’s not just The Terror. There’s also The Raven and Nicholson is dreadful in both. Remember, he was about to quit acting when Easy Rider came along. I suppose it’s fair to say that the greater world wouldn’t care about the Corman Little Shop if not for the musical — possibly even the stage show more than the film. But I wouldn’t make that statement in a roomful of horror fans. I have no great fondness for it, but I do like Jonathan Haze as a person.

  11. Lisa Watters

    Ken, I agree with your review except about Oprah’s performance. I didn’t find it distracting at all. I forgot almost immediately that Gloria was being played by Oprah; she totally inhabited that character. In fact I find that kind of mind blowing considering how large the ‘Oprah’ personality is in our culture. The girl can act.

  12. Ken Hanke

    At last! Someone saw the damned movie!! I didn’t say she wasn’t good. I’m saying I was unable to forget she was Oprah. That is probably my problem.

  13. Lisa Watters

    I did indeed see it! Altogether it was actually better than I expected. You never know with those biopic (however loosely based) films.

  14. Matt

    Great film! Not sure why this comment thread is largely about M.C. (and get real guys, she’s a super talented singer. Maybe not your taste, but superbly trained voice.)
    The tension between the son and the father was well played and paced, and avoided cliche by sincere acting and gratifying progression. Father son dynamics always get to me when they are played well. And how many movies have done such a good job of portraying real time those events of the sixties? (I guess that’s a proverbial question, but if anyone’s got any, let me know.) I agree totally that the ensemble cast approach worked well precisely due to the condensed nature of the plot. Great review, thanks.

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