Not since Forrest Gump have we seen a movie so fervently take a look at the spectrum of American history like Lee Daniels’ The Butler (in theaters August 16). With Forest Whitaker (the fact that he’s named Forest has to be a coincidence) as a butler to seven presidents, the movie spans the 20th century and tackles heavy-hitting topics like the civil rights movement. It’s certainly an ambitious movie, but do the critics think it’s actually a good one?
New York Times
Taking inspiration from an article by Wil Haygood in The Washington Post about the life of Eugene Allen, who worked as a butler in the White House during eight presidential administrations, Lee Daniels has told the story of the civil rights movement in the bold colors of costume pageantry and the muted tones of domestic drama. He also throws in a few bright splashes of crazy, over-the-top theatricality, in the form of outrageous period-appropriate outfits and startling celebrity cameos, as well as dabs of raucous comedy.
The Washington Post
Any movie that casts Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan certainly has a piquant sense of humor, but the prankishness of Lee Daniels’ The Butler — so named after a title dispute with the MPAA — undermines the serious statements this star-spangled film is striving to make about race, class and politics. Along with missing the movie’s ever-migrating point, viewers may be forgiven for wondering whether Lee Daniels’ The Butler might have been titled Lee Daniels’ Forrest Gump — its hero challenged morally rather than mentally, but watching history in Gumpian fashion, as a series of cameos viewed through a slightly clueless daze.
Los Angeles 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.
There’s no denying the stumbles that mar this alternately riveting and risible historical epic (big stars in bad makeup doing cameos as American presidents – yikes!). Yet Lee Daniels’ The Butler holds you, provokes you and ultimately moves you. It’s a huge task, trying to detail the battle between Uncle Tom-ism and radicalism that divided African-Americans during civil rights movements between 1957 and 1986. And to do it through one man, Cecil Gaines (a stellar Forest Whitaker), a White House butler who served seven presidents, defines risky.
New York Magazine
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is crudely powerful. You can object to the thuggish direction and the script that’s a series of signposts, but not the central idea, which is genuinely illuminating.
There you have it – The Butler’s ambitions may have been too grand, but you can still make something good while failing to make something great. So this era-spanning, Oscar-grabbing historical drama may be worth your time after all!
What do you think, HollywoodLifers? Will you see Lee Daniels’ The Butler? Let us know!
– Andrew Gruttadaro