The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

September 27, 2013

Lee Daniel’s The Butler: A Captivating History Lesson

By Roger Thomas
CNHI

Friday, September 27, 2013 — Who would have thought that Lee Daniel’s “The Butler” would be so popular?

Of course, the film does have a prestigious pedigree. The title character is played by Academy-Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker. There are five other Oscar winning actors in various roles (Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding Jr., Robin Williams, Jane Fonda and Melissa Leo) plus two more who have been nominated (Oprah Winfrey and Terrence Howard). Add that to the Oscar that director Lee Daniels has received in the past for his screenplay for “Precious,” and that’s a lot of praise that has been received by many involved in “Butler.”  

Several of the performances in this film are special, but most of the Oscar buzz seems to be circling around Whitaker and Winfrey. Whitaker is worthy, but I am not so sure about Winfrey. I personally think she should have won back in 1985 for playing Sofia in “The Color Purple.”

However, there is a lot to like here. Just as with the performances, the production values of the film are high. The way that national history is intertwined with the “Butler’s” own family and personal life makes the impact of the events all the greater. The film tells an often moving story that is well constructed and covers many issues with great clarity.

One of the greatest strengths of this film is the pacing. “The Butler” never lingers too long in one place or one time. A historical drama such as this could get bogged down and melodramatic but this one never does. No president or event of history is before the audience too long, sometimes, it almost seems too brief, but it does successfully keep the velocity of the film brisk.

The story is always marching ahead toward a future where at least some of the problems are resolved. No one is naive enough to believe that the hatred depicted in many of the scenes has been absolutely eradicated, but the film, as it moves from the cotton fields of Georgia to the White House of the nation’s first African-American president, reminds the citizens of this great nation that we can be better than our past selves were.

One minor complaint about the speed of the film is a regret that there is no depiction of the Ford and Carter administrations. Ford was perhaps omitted because his tenure was so brief. Carter possibly because he is the only currently living president that served during the time of the narrative; it might be awkward having an actor play the living Jimmy Carter, but I for one would have welcomed a scene between the 39th president and the “Butler.”

In the end, I liked “The Butler.” It is a well-crafted film with strong performances and a compelling story. Many are speculating Oscar gold for the film.  Writer-Director Lee Daniels last film, “Precious,” garnered two Oscars and a nomination for Best Picture. “The Butler” may do as well or better. As I mentioned above, a total of eight winning or nominated actors appear in this motion picture. However, for me there are at least five films I have already seen this year that I like more than this one. “The Butler” is very good, but 2013 has given us some really great films.

Roger Thomas reviews films for The Stanly News & Press and thesnaponline.com.