The 400-Word Review: Lee Daniels' The Butler
By Sean Collier
August 19, 2013
Three chief elements make Lee Daniels’ The Butler as good as it is (which is quite good, by the way).
The first is right there in the title. Daniels, who was nominated for an Oscar for directing Precious in 2009, proves himself capable of some savvy maneuvers with The Butler. Chief among them: he decided to make a movie, not a biography. The Butler is a fictionalized account of the life of former longtime White House butler Eugene Allen; while the film is intimately entwined with Allen’s life, it is not true point-for-point (in fact, the character has a different name).
Daniels, knowing no fealty to actual events is required, doesn’t attempt to distill a life into a two-hour summation, as nearly every director of a Hollywood biopic has done for about a decade. Instead, Daniels crafts a compelling story that sweeps the course of the civil rights movement into a father-and-son saga. (Some of the credit on this point goes to screenwriter Danny Strong, who adapted a Washington Post story by Wil Haygood.)
The second component of The Butler’s success is the flashiest: have you heard about this cast? A stunning five winners of competitive acting Oscars — Forest Whitaker, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Vanessa Redgrave, Robin Williams and Jane Fonda — appear. Add in Oprah Winfrey, who holds an honorary Oscar, and that’s a half-dozen statuettes represented.
The roster behind those all-stars is deep, too: Terrence Howard, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Nelsan Ellis, Lenny Kravitz and Elijah Kelly all offer memorable performances in a film that doubles as an acting master class. While a slim few roles do feel a bit like stunt casting — Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy is one, and Fonda’s headline-baiting turn as Nancy Reagan is another — the vast majority of the portrayals and characters in The Butler are effective, memorable and fiercely embodied.
But the key to The Butler, obviously, is the late Allen. Having served in the White House for 34 years that included the most dramatic moments of the civil rights struggle — as well as the Kennedy and King assassinations and Vietnam — is as remarkable a story as we’re likely to hear for quite some time.
The Butler is imperfect; some strokes are broad, and disposable voice-over narration detracts slightly. But it’s as impressive and grand as its story is important.
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark