My Review of Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Since some of you had requested my thoughts on The Butler, which I finally saw yesterday, here it is!

First off, what a weeper! I found myself tearing up at so many different moments  (Spoiler Alert) – the sit-in scene, the assassination of MLK, the death of a certain main character. Of course, my feelings have been really frazzled on account of the rough, tough summer we’ve had: starting with the gutting of our Voting Rights Act in June, followed later by that horrendous not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial in July, and then that atrocious porn video of one of my favorite black heroines in history, Harriet Tubman, just last week.

I’m feeling all kinds of way, truly worried about the future of both race relations and gender relations in this increasingly racist and misogynistic society of ours. How, indeed, will David fit into this cultural environment when he returns next year? Can he still bring the light?

Well, with these sorts of emotions, no wonder I was so weepy. Because, if I were in a different mood, I wonder if I would have cried so much.  I thought The Butler did a wonderful job of summarizing the history of the 20th century struggle of African Americans through the focus on one family, supported by a man whose work as a butler (and in the White House no less) kept them above the fray.  The movie works to redeem and honor the countless black men and women who served in these positions (oftentimes the only work available to African Americans pre-Civil Rights era).  It’s work that was meant to “demean” African Americans, so Daniels’ attempt (and Forest Whitaker’s portrayal) does much to bring honor to that role.

Most importantly, I think it helps to really see the lives behind these servants, who are often reduced to decorations in white films, or catalysts in films like The Help, servants who are there only to help white people through a moral crisis of some sort.

In that regards, I appreciate what The Butler tried to do.

But this is Lee Daniels, and subtlety is not his strong suit.  That early “rape and murder” scene at the beginning, as well as the in-your-face depiction of a lynching, was so awkwardly done (and Mariah Carey’s acting so wooden) that it made me cringe. And it happened early enough in the movie to make me worry that I would hate the film.

But the lack-of-subtlety worked well for this sentimental drama that really seemed to hit home and remind a contemporary audience – still reeling from the harsh pins of racism that have burst our Post-Racial bubble – that there is so much more work to be done, but at least let’s appreciate the hell from which we’ve come.

Recreating the night of Obama’s election, once again, brought tears to my eyes, for I remembered that moment vividly (and it was bittersweet thinking of the promise of that moment to the failure of now).

More than anything, this movie was a good emotional catharsis, but some over-the-top drama (and a ridiculously sentimental movie score) prevented it from sailing smoothly. Oprah was great in her role, but I wish Forest Whitaker brought more nuance to his portrayal.

Another movie that I think was much more subtle but still quite emotional in its delivery is the film Fruitvale Station, which I saw last month.  It was sobering because I saw it not long after the Zimmerman trial and covers similar material about an unarmed young black man gunned down due to racial profiling.

The black struggle continues, but I’m grateful for movies that can still bring back the humanity to our lives.

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Posted on August 20, 2013, in current events. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Thank you for the review, I wanted to see it before your review, but now I’m even more excited to go, I guess I better bring a whole box of Kleenex.
    I know how a movie can affect ones emotional state when something very dramatic happens in ones life. I remember going to see The Rose with my sister (our wonderful sister that was her twin had died of cancer months before) and although a very funny movie, but the struggle and death of the main character’s friend was so strong emotionally for both of us that we were sobbing uncontrollably. All I have to see is the title of that movie to bring tears to my eyes to this day.

  2. Off topic and really pertains to last thread. I found out today, a game show no less, lol that Elvis’s only Grammy wins were for his Gospel albums, just found that kind of interesting being that I also found out that he was also a bigot.

  3. Thanks for the review HG. Very good and thoughtful review. I agree that the movie did a good job of summarizing the history of the 20th century struggle of African Americans. I saw The Butler over the weekend and cried during many parts of the movie. It just really touched me in many parts of the film. You also did a good job of point out some of the flaws of the movie. I highly recommend that people go to this movie. I found it engaging and entertaining.

  4. I grew up in the Elvis era, …it was a time of racial segration, not that it was a good thing..it just was. His conversation wasnt much different from any you would hear on the street. I lived it the south part of that time…the days of two water fountains, back of the bus…and until the days when it was challenged…we didnt think anything of it. We weren’t the ones that started it…but thankfully my generation was the one that took steps to end it! Civil unrest was scary, when I look back…I wonder what the hell we were scared of!

  5. potluck8google

    I was never crazy about Elvis. I had an uncle that lived in Memphis at the time Elvis was just stating out and he said they would throw quarters at him to hear him sing, I was surprised to lean that Elvis was a bigot.

  6. I guess I see things differenty, growing up in that generation……I dont see Elvis as a bigot, I see him as a product of his/our generation. it doesnt excuse or make light of bigotry,(there is no excuse for it) and it wasnt a part of my vocabulary, but I heard it everywhere, everyday. When you grow up and live it the south it was a very different world back then. Again not making excuses, just saying that things were different…on both sides of the coin.

  7. Thanks HG. I thought it was a great movie and I would recommend it to everyone. However, at the end before rolling through the credits, I wish they had taken a minute to flash on the screen some factual information and pics re. the real butlers, maids, etc. that worked in the white house.

    Also, I appreciated how the movie paid homage to Soul Train for its role in bringing black music mainstream and to Jet/Ebony magazine as news sources for the black community.

  8. New pic of David posted by Kim over at FOD:

    He looks good. Is it 2014 yet?? 😉

    • Loving the new picture, somehow looking more like our David. Dang, wish he would be released earlier, the earlier the better, would love for him to have a few months in 2013 to work on his comeback, just a silly wish, I know, that can’t possibly happen, no need to correct me.

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