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Movie Review

Lee Daniels' The Butler

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.

Reviewed by: Brian C. Johnson
CONTRIBUTOR

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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Teens Adults
Genre:
Biography Drama Adaptation
Length:
2 hr. 12 min.
Year of Release:
2013
USA Release:
August 16, 2013 (wide)
DVD: January 14, 2014
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Relevant Issues
Copyright, The Weinstein Company

Does the Bible condone slavery? Answer

darkness cannot destroy darkness, only light can

RACISM—What are the consequences of racial prejudice and false beliefs about the origin of races? Answer

What part should morality play in politics? Answer

Does character matter in political leaders? Answer

Civil Rights movement in the U.S.

Recommended film: Runaway Slave (2012)

rape victims’ stories

shame and rape

The Black Panthers

drunkenness in the Bible

alcoholism

Featuring: Liev SchreiberLyndon B. Johnson
James MarsdenJohn F. Kennedy
Alex Pettyfer … Thomas Westfall
Alan RickmanRonald Reagan
John CusackRichard Nixon
Robin WilliamsDwight Eisenhower
Minka KellyJackie Kennedy
Forest WhitakerCecil Gaines
Nelsan Ellis … Martin Luther King Jr.
Jesse Williams … Rev. James Lawson
Jane Fonda … Nancy Reagan
Terrence HowardHoward
Vanessa RedgraveAnnabeth Westfall
Cuba Gooding Jr.Carter Wilson
Lenny Kravitz … James Holloway
Oprah Winfrey … Gloria Gaines
Mariah Carey … Hattie Pearl
more »
Director: Lee Daniels—“Precious,” “The Paperboy,” “Shadowboxer”
Producer: Laura Ziskin Productions
Outpost Studios (ADR Post Production)
more »
Distributor: The Weinstein Company

“One quiet voice can ignite a revolution”

Martin Luther King, Jr. Rosa Parks. Malcolm X. All recognizable names that have echoed as significant characters in the American Civil Rights story. These people have been taught so frequently that we often forget that before they were “heroes,” they were ordinary citizens who grew tired of a way of life that denied all Americans their full participation in our democracy. Names like Viola Liuzzo, Joann Robinson, and Cecil Gaines are often left out of the record [readers are encouraged to look up these names]. Until now, the triumphant story of Mr. Gaines has been ignored; that is, until “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” was released this weekend.

Doomed by the color of his skin to a life of menial labor in the cotton fields of the American South, Cecil (Forest Whitaker) makes a living by serving as a valet and butler in some of the fanciest hotels and eateries. An opportunity comes his way to move to Washington, DC to become one of the butlers at the White House. For this young man who came from nothing, the chance to become one of servants to several of our nation’s presidents was no small deal. His commitment to excellence and his desire never to return to the past pains of his upbringing led Cecil to ignore the needs of his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and his two sons, Charlie and Louis, who each struggled to respect their father’s choice of occupations amidst the changing tide of social unrest in America.

This is a story that needed to be told. In our historical record, we do not often get to see the unsung heroes who quietly worked to change our society, not through picketing or pulpits, but by being excellent and humble. I am often reminded of the thousands of unnamed citizens in Alabama who walked for over a year to drive the Montgomery bus system to its knees. These porters, maids, and laypeople gave up their creature comforts and braved the elements to change their society, but we only remember Parks and King. It was people like Cecil Gaines who made significant changes, just by being a servant. (Wow, there’s a Christian message right there!)

The film is not without challenge to Christian sensibility. There is some coarse language and some sexual content. Cecil’s friend, Howard (Oscar®-nominee Terrence Howard), is nothing sort of a letch, and his language is rife with sex talk and his extramarital affairs. There is no nudity (a true rarity these days). There are some scenes of violence—much of what we would see in documentary footage of the time period. Racial epithets are commonplace throughout the film. All these things, withstanding, the film is well done and one I would recommend for teens and adults.

Timely and important, “… The Butler” may become an instant classic. I wholeheartedly encourage you to go see it! Powerful!

Violence: Moderate / Profanity: Moderate to heavy—including “G*d-damn” (5), OMG, “Jesus Christ” (2), “Oh my Lord,” “Lord,” “hell” (3) / Sex/Nudity: Minor

Editor’s Note: Racism is a sin that should be repugnant to all true followers of Christ. Human rights have Christian roots. An issue that the reviewer does not address is historical accuracy? What factual changes in the butler’s life are based on reasonable artistic license, and how much resulted from the bias of its producers? When evaluating biographies and other historical films, viewers should be prudently cautious of revisionist history.

The movie’s writer, Danny Strong, wrote “Game Change” (2012), the HBO bio-drama that attacked Sarah Palin’s reputation. Did the real butler have his father murdered by racists? No. Was his mother really raped? Apparently not. Did he have a Civil Rights activist for a son. No. Did he have a son that died in Vietnam. No. Did the real butler (Eugene Allen—called Cecil Gaines in the film) endure the series of nightmarish Civil Rights events portrayed. Considerable artistic license was taken. This is a fictional story, told somewhat Forrest Gump style. Was Ronald Reagan really against civil rights? Were The Black Panthers really the good guys that the film portrays? Are Republicans overwhelmingly anti-Black? Viewers are cautioned to read accurate history to divide fact from fiction in evaluating this emotionally charged film. The producers and many key actors in this film are well known for their Progressive Liberal politics.

External links of interest:
• “How True Is ‘The Butler’?”, Aisha Harris, Slate, Aug. 15, 2013.
• “‘Butler’: Reprocessing History With Feeling,” Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 15, 2013.
• “Fictional History in ‘Butler’ Belittles Civil Rights Progress,” Andrea Billups, NewsMax, Aug. 21, 2013.
• “Historian: Reagan Depicted Unfairly in ‘Butler’ Movie,” Bill Hoffmann and John Bachman, NewsMax, Aug. 16, 2013. • “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” Will Haygood, The Washington Post, November 7, 2008.

RACISM—What are the consequences of racial prejudice and false beliefs about the origin of races? Answer

Racism, Racial Issues and ChristianityGet biblical answers to racial hot-topics. Where did the races come from? How did skin color come about? Why is it important to have a biblical foundation for such issues?

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.


Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Positive
Positive—I loved this movie. Not only did it feature strong actors, but it is a reminder that heroism can be shown in many forms. …
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Marin, age 34 (USA)
Neutral
Neutral—I enjoyed most of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” The parts of the presidents were portrayed very nicely, except for the Reagans, who are portrayed as apathetic to morality (Reagan even admits he’ll veto something anti-racist). I am also saddened that Jane Fonda portrayed Nancy Reagan. Lyndon Johnson, while probably historically accurate, was obnoxious beyond words, and it really offends me that he took God's name in vain almost every breath, plus his bathroom scene was beyond unneeded. The movie should have ended when Cecil and his wife embraced each other next to his childhood home.

When I saw the movie praise Obama (who is for abortion and uses drones to kill innocent people), I swear I wanted to just jump up and leave; only reason I did not was because I hoped it would get better, and I was with my family (who also disapprove of Obama), but we agreed to skip the ending next time we might ever watch it again. Give it a watch, but just walk out the moment you see an Obama-Biden 08 shirt.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Average / Moviemaking quality: 4
—Peter, age 23 (USA)
Neutral—First off, I must say that I am a very political person. With that being said, I decided to leave my politics (which are completely formed around my religious convictions) at the door and be “open-minded” about this movie. This was very hard to do for many reasons, mostly because I knew this movie was going to have a liberal slant. One would think that history is history, and fact is fact, but even Hollywood can find a way to make that not so.

I was enthralled with the beginning of the film and coasted through the rest, sometimes laughing, sometimes wincing, and sometimes being pleasantly surprised. I thought Eisenhower was portrayed nicely (for the amount of screen time he got). Kennedy was over-hyped but still talked about behind the scenes for the slick politician that he was. Johnson was quite irritating, and the movie did show that he had more than his share of racist views. Nixon was laughable (come on… John Cusack!!?). more »
My Ratings: Moral rating: Average / Moviemaking quality: 4
—Chad, age 33 (USA)
Neutral—This started out like a movie that could have been something special… sadly it became a “tilted” view, as how a biased person of color might view America. A fair view of Presidents? unlikely… President Carter and Clinton (both Democrats) were given a pass… This movie could have been a movie for the ages, instead it became a person’s “commentary” on how he or she viewed history. To me a good movie that could have been great!—thus a saddening disappointment…
My Ratings: Moral rating: Average / Moviemaking quality:
—Ben [an Agnostic], age 67 (USA)
Comments from young people
Negative—The script is laughable at times. Whitaker is good though, as is Winfrey.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 3
—C, age 15 (USA)
Comments from non-viewers
Negative—Has Jane Fonda in it which means that although it might be the best film of the year, I won’t spend a dime on it. As a Vietnam veteran I refuse to watch anything in which this traitor appears, and I believe that a lot of veterans have the same response.
—Richard Snyder, age 70 (USA)
Comments from non-viewers
Negative—My wife gave me a report of this film. I told her before she went that this movie would have a “chip on it’s shoulder” and, of course, I was right. How could I be wrong given the nature of every single film of the last thirty years of this genre (some more that others for example I didn’t see it to heavily in “The Color Purple”)? As one who was born during the Kennedy administration, I’ve grown up with the turmoil of ethnic relations. Long gone are the whites only drinking fountains, which were later replaced by affirmative action diluting the achievements and honor of many hard working African Americans who would have been successful without this.

Institutional racism is completely gone from American society, yet the likes of smooth talking cheap used car salesmen Revs. Jackson and Sharpton have to invent fantasies of horrible discrimination (I’m not saying it’s totally gone, but it’s not nearly as extensive as they try to have us believe) to maintain the self made niches they’ve carved out, while they pocket millions of dollars emotionally extorted from those that have far less. more »
—Bob C, age 50 (USA)
Positive—It saddens me to read Bob C’s comments, as it sounds like he, too, has a chip on his shoulder. I believe all sides could gain a lot from demonstrating Christ-like empathy and compassion for our unique stories, struggles, and successes. Rather than looking on such stories as “…The Butler” (and I viewed it as just that—a story and not a substitute for a history lesson) with prejudices and disdain, we should try to learn and understand one another. I can’t say I know what it’s like to be a white man over these past decades of change, but I try to listen. I can say I know what it’s like as a young black woman who was raised by parents and grandparents who grew up in times of segregation and limited voting rights—and who are proud to see a “dark-skinned man” become a serious contender for the White House, as that demonstrates how far we’ve come and that their struggle (several of them marched with Dr. King) was not in vain. more »
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 4
—Marin, age 34 (USA)
Positive—In response to Bob C’s [comments], I was very offended by some of the comments that were made, such as …calling Obama an arrogant incompetent, saying he is pushing us back to slavery, and that black people elected him because he is “dark skinned.” First of all, by writing those comments he was not calling Obama out, he was just venting his frustration and wasn’t even talking about the movie. And while he thought he was giving insight, his comments were ignorant and offensive, at least they offended me anyway. Being a black person myself, it was a miracle to see him elected, I was really cynical and didn’t think it would happen, so to read people attacking him makes me pretty mad, plus they come off as racist. Just as a warning: truly think about your words before you type them.
—T., age 20 (USA)
Negative—Even though this film is a true story, I still feel like these types of movies only promote racial tension in society, instead of decrease it. Now I know I wasn’t around during segregation, but racism does still exist, even if people do it subconsciously. But back to the movie: I understand it has a positive outcome, but there’s just too much conflict. Being African-American, it annoys me how pretty much every single time they make a movie where there’s all black characters the background of the story just HAS to be extremely negative. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ignorant to history, but I stay away from these movies because it just causes too many intense emotions. I’d rather watch something where I don’t have to see so many dark and/or scary events to arrive at a positive ending.
—T., age 20 (USA)

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