Posted by: greercn | November 26, 2013

The Butler

At 132 minutes, it’s yet another long movie. Lee Daniels (“Precious” and “The Paperboy”) has created a real labour of love. Is it entertaining?

Yes and no. It benefits from powerful leads in Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey as the title character, Cecil and his wife, Gloria.

Cecil Gaines is a White House butler who serves eight US Presidents. Based on an article by Wil Haygood, who co-writes the script (with Danny Strong), quite a lot of dramatic detail is added to the original story. Haygood’s article was based on Eugene Allen’s life.

Here’s the original article:

A cotton plantation of unspeakable horror is invented. There’s a whole set of sequences about the Freedom Riders – who risked their lives by protesting in segregated states – and much of the added detail is moving yet feels false.

And again, on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, we get more detail of this terrible event. The real Allen did cry when this happened.

Slightly too long is spent hammering away worthy points. Is the butler himself giving in to the worst stereotypes about black people, just by serving white people and is the Freedom Rider making a more noble choice? The movie seems inclined to say that protest is better than acceptance, whatever the cost.

It’s at its best when it sticks to the truth. The real butler’s wife did die just before Obama was elected President. The couple really did go to a White House dinner as guests, thanks to the Reagans.

A star-studded cast play the Presidents and some of these feel like caricatures.

For me, the film would have improved by sticking to the true story as that’s when it feels most moving. David Oyelowo is amazing and Terrence Howard has super scenes, but too much recent history is crammed into one movie.

Everyone at the Stratford East Picturehouse enjoyed it, in a rather subdued way. Lee Daniels is a terrific director with big ideas and a warm heart. But the cramming in of so many iconic moments in recent history makes the whole feel more like a documentary than a family story. The story of the real family is quite big enough. It would have been good to have more reality and less newsreel footage.



  1. So many familiar faces show up, and all do pretty fine jobs. However, in the middle of it all is Whitaker, giving us the type of quiet, small and thoughtful performance we expect to see from him, and deliver in spades. Good review Greer.

    • Not sure I agree with you but thanks for the comment. Too much feels false, here. Whitaker is terrific, but I fear Lee Daniels rules the roost. And that means too much is added that is false.

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