Movie Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler


The history of the American civil rights movement is showcased through the eyes of Cecil Grimes, an African-American man who served as a butler in the White House through seven presidents.

I have so many problems with this film. To start, the film opens with the claim that it is based on THE true story, as if there is only one true story. But the story isn’t even true. The real butler’s name wasn’t Cecil Grimes. It was Eugene Allen. In the film, Cecil has two sons, one of whom joins the Black Panthers and the other who goes off to fight in Vietnam. Eugene had one son who neither was a political activist nor served his country in battle. In the film, Cecil watched his father get murdered by a lecherous employer on a cotton field in Georgia. Eugene, apparently, grew up on a Virginia plantation. So what was true in the story?

Yes, there were Freedom Riders. These were activist black and white (to use the terms in use at the time) university students who rode interstate buses together in the American South and, yes, many of them were beaten up by racist mobs. Yes, it took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to extend equal civil rights to all Americans regardless of the colour of their skin. Yes, America now has an African-American president and yes, there really was a White House butler who served seven presidents. But there was so much creative license used in the film, I half-expected Cecil to claim he was related to Kunta Kinte, the character made famous in the book and TV series, ROOTS.

Oh, and don’t get me started on the characterizations of the various presidents. What a joke! Robin Williams played Dwight D. Eisenhower, even though he looked more like Harry Truman. James Marsden (of X-Men fame) played John Kennedy, Liev Schreiber – wearing an obvious prosthetic on his nose – played Lyndon Johnson, John Cusack – also sporting a bad nose job – played Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman played Ronald Reagan. I thought I was watching a series of comedy sketches on Saturday Night Live. It’s too bad there wasn’t a part in the film for Sarah Palin so that we could enjoy Tina’s Fey’s sendup of her. The only impersonation that was any good was Jane Fonda’s creepy portrayal of Nancy Reagan.

This is a story that should have been a made-for-TV miniseries, just as ROOTS was almost 40 years ago. The film features a cast of some of Hollywood’s most respected African-American actors today including Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Clarence Williams III, Lenny Kravitz, David Oyelowo and Elijah Kelley. Even Mariah Carey makes an appearance. Blink and you’ll miss her.

And that’s the big problem I have with the film. It covers so much history in its 2:12 running time that every scene is distilled down to a brief snippet. As a result, characters become stereotypes and we’re left thinking that Cecil is simply an African-Americant version of Forrest Gump. World-altering events happen to him and his family while he goes about serving drinks to rich white boys.

Many people have argued that kids need to watch this film in order to learn about the American civil rights movement but there are better films than this. I would recommend MISSISSIPPI BURNING (1988), SCOTTSBORO: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (2000), FROM SWASTIKA TO JIM CROW (2000), and THE ROSA PARKS STORY (2002).

In the meantime, give this film a miss.

Listen to the review online at Radio 4. (Click on the link, select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 40:15.)

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