The Butler, a Critics Pick by the NY Times, High Praise from Key Critics

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These days, with film criticism, there aren’t many of the good ones left. Too many film reviews now seem like they are product reviews for shampoo or an airplane seat. Very few of them really deliver the kind of in-depth insight film criticism has always been at its best. Perhaps that’s because of the time frame necessary to bolt out reviews now; there just isn’t much time to really construct reviews that are themselves an illuminating read, no matter what their opinion on a film ultimately is. Two such reviews have popped up on Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Though Metacritic rated Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir’s review with a score of 50, I don’t think that quite cuts it. If you miss the praise therein with his review, you really miss everything. Though he debates with himself whether The Butler is a good movie, he calls it “Oscar-worthy” ( it is) and then writes:

But “The Butler” is indisputably an important film and a necessary one, arriving at the end of the summer of Paula Deen and George Zimmerman and the Detroit bankruptcy, a summer that has vividly reminded us that if America’s ancient racial wounds have faded somewhat, they have never healed. For a black filmmaker to tell this fraught and complicated story now, in a mainstream picture with an all-star cast, is significant all on its own. Faulkner’s observation that the past is never dead and isn’t even past has come to sound trite through endless repetition by politicians and journalists, but it speaks to our country in 2013, and to the impact of this movie. And before I wander too far afield, “The Butler” is also a showcase for numerous terrific black actors, including Whitaker, Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, not to mention a fiery and sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated supporting role for Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s wife, Gloria.

No such qualification will be necessary for AO Scott’s review in the New York Times. Admittedly, with Daniels’ film, it seems that critics are torn between what they can plainly see is a story well told, and their need to wear their critics hat and point out the obvious flaws. But I dare say an artist today must tumble forth fearlessly, with enough courage to make those mistakes. The last thing any filmmaker should do now is play it safe and part of the reason they do is, in all likelihood, to satisfy the critics. And if there is one group that really doesn’t need satisfying it’s the critics.

Scott writes:

But it is important to emphasize that “The Butler,” unlike almost every other movie about race in America, is not primarily about the moral awakening of white people. Nor does it neatly divide whites into snarling bigots and paragons of tolerance. There are certainly instances of raw prejudice and of sincere decency, but the presidents are complex and contradictory creatures. Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber) spews racial slurs even as he prepares to sign the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Lincoln. Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) treats the black White House staff more fairly than any of his predecessors — his wife, Nancy (yes, that is Jane Fonda) invites Cecil to a state dinner — but fails to grasp the moral enormity of South African apartheid. They all appreciate Cecil’s service without ever quite seeing him fully as a person. “The room should feel empty when you’re in it,” he is told by supervisors, and he becomes adept at disappearing in plain sight.

Cecil, whose job involves a lot of performance, is a fiercely disciplined actor, and the same can be said of Mr. Whitaker, who demonstrates how gracefully his character walks the line between dignity and servility. But Cecil’s working life as an invisible man in the highest precincts of power is only one layer of this film. It is also interested in showing his other face. And so the camera follows him into the kitchens and back rooms of the White House and revels in his easy, irreverent camaraderie with Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz), fellow butlers who become his close friends.

O’Hehir again:

Daniels’ point, of course, echoes what King tells Louis: The traditions of Du Bois and Washington, of self-sacrifice and hard work on one hand, and street protest and political organizing on the other, are not as distinct or disconnected as they may appear. Both have driven a history that isn’t finished yet. While the election of Barack Obama serves as the culmination of this story — and for African-Americans of Cecil Gaines’ generation it was an unimaginable, even millennial victory – in the larger story of America it was an unexpected plot twist whose true consequences remain unknown. One hundred and fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln asked whether a country conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality would work out, and we still don’t know. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is big, brave, crude and contradictory, very bad in places and very good in others, and every American should see it.

And Scott:

“The Butler” has the historical insight and the generosity of spirit to honor the father and the son equally, and to look with skepticism at each’s point of view. Louis can be courageous and principled, but when his radicalism turns foolish, the film does not hesitate to take his father’s side. Cecil, on the other hand, is blind to the intensity of his son’s convictions and the necessity of the work his son is doing, and his proud patriarchal stubbornness hurts everyone in the family.

But Cecil and Louis, in the end, are doing the same work: they are insisting that their country, at long last, recognize them as full citizens and human beings. Mr. Daniels measures how much of this work has been accomplished, at what cost and with what enemies and allies, and never lets us suppose that it is finished. He dedicates “The Butler” to “the heroes of the civil rights movement” and leaves no doubt that people like the title character — including the unsung maids, Pullman porters, janitors and kitchen workers who toiled far from the White House — belong in that category. We remember those who marched and who stood up for themselves in the face of injustice. It is good to remember that, to paraphrase Milton, they also stand who only wait and serve.

Why are these reviews important and necessary part of the Oscar race? Because unlike many of the mixed reviews on Metacritic, they put the film in its rightful place in film history and, hopefully, Oscar history. These writers, like the best writers in film criticism, recognize the bigger picture. Without that, there really is no point in having film reviews at all since all most of them serve to do is tell us about the reviewer’s peculiarities.

Why is Lee Daniels The Butler Oscar-worthy? Because the Oscars would be cashing a check on the promise of a black director, the only one, that they’ve already honored with a Picture and Director nomination for Precious. But more than that, it is a both an atonement and an acknowledgement for the utter lack of attention paid to African American stories in mainstream Hollywood and at the Oscars. How many films about black characters who play the “magical negro” to the white characters to make the white voters feel better about themselves? Well, here is one that pointedly doesn’t do that.

To me, honoring a film like The Butler is what the Oscars can be best used for. They don’t pick the best film. This has been proven time and time again, as history sifts through the Oscar years. The Godfather I and II, No Country for Old Men — sometimes they get it right. Most of the time, though, they are operating in a haze of Celexa and nostalgia for what was. But that nostalgia rarely includes any other story but those that massage the white psyche. The industry has anointed Argo, The Artist, The King’s Speech in the past three years. None of those films will have the kind of cultural impact that The Butler will. Does that matter? Or does a momentary burst of happiness matter more? I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that, for the most part, the Oscars are insignificant. They represent power and popularity in Hollywood and both has been dominated by white storytellers and white talent for far too long. It’s time to open the door and take a good look around.

  • Paddy Mulholland

    I dare say an artist today must tumble forth fearlessly, with enough courage to make those mistakes. The last thing any filmmaker should do now is play it safe


    The Oscars were never meant to be about the best filmmaking. They were meant to be about what was best for the industry. Whether it’s good or not, I can’t help but feel that The Butler is a bloody good film for the industry.

    America, go and fucking see this film tomorrow! African-American filmmakers need those dollars! You have the potential to make this the highest-grossing film of the coming weekend!

  • drake

    “important film and a necessary one,”… sounds like a film that should be shown to 8th grade or high school history students… not necessarily one that should be shown in film (as an art) classes…. an important distinction i think. i can appreciate and acknowledge the first kind, but am really only interested in the second

  • Christophe

    Methinks this awards season is going to be even more exciting and passionate than the last one. Hopefully, there’ll be plenty of shockers and controversies to get us talking and arguing endlessly. If only the precursor awards could spread the wealth so the odds are wide open come oscar night…

  • steve50

    “Metacritic rated Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir’s review with a score of 50…he debates with himself whether The Butler is a good movie, he calls it ‘Oscar-worthy’”

    I read Andrew’s review and it deserved a higher score than 50 (for those that give ahoot about the numbers game), however, it looks like we’ve made it official – a movie doesn’t have to be good to be oscar-worthy.

    I can’t compare the two because I haven’t seen The Butler yet, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why critics and bloggers now throw Fruitvale Station under the bus in favor of a newer, shinier toy based soley on “importance” of subject matter. Fruitvale is an honest and heartfelt – and well-made – gem. It just doesn’t have Harvey, Oprah and the handbag story.

    I will see The Butler if it kills me (and it just may), but right now, I’m hoping McQueen hold the trump card.

  • Paddy Mulholland

    Despite such dreadful results on Oscar night (on the whole), I thought last year’s Oscar race was the most exciting since I started watching the race in ’04-’05, so that’d be awesome!

  • Christophe

    Yeah, but it’s unfortunate the last month before the Oscars always turns out to be the least exciting. Once Argo started winning everything, there wasn’t much suspense left in the competition. Lee winning best direction for Pi was the only “surprise” among the big 6.

  • julian the emperor

    “…however, it looks like we’ve made it official – a movie doesn’t have to be good to be oscar-worthy.”

    If we follow Sasha’s logic, Steve50, then no, it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to FEEL good or portray something right and honorable (or be made by people representing a minority, apparently!).

    Which is, of course, absurd. I will try to explain why.

    If we turn art (and art as competition) into a question of politics, justice and fairness (on a larger societal scale), then we might as well get rid of art in toto.
    Who needs art if we have to measure it by the standards of society (and a vision of solidarity, inclusion and political correctness or whatever suits the current zeitgeist)?

    Art is emphatically about the extra-societal dimensions of life and existence.

    I mean, Ezra Pound was an anti-semitic idiot in real life, but he was a tremendously talented writer. You cannot judge his artistic merit by pointing to his lack of human understanding when it came to politics and questions of race.

    We should never be fooled into mixing art and politics, or art and justice, and if we do, we should know that art will suffer accordingly.

    As a fan of movies, we should wish for the best movie to win at The Oscars (and the best in an aesthetic sense is rarely the most sympathetic, feel-good or politically convenient of the bunch).

    On the other hand: As a supporter of political justice we should hope that the film industry at large will be better at accommodating voices of a minority perspective, so that they will be able to express a divergent message and be heard on more or less equal conditions.

    Of course, The Oscars is not an idealistic proposition in reality. It is itself a realm of politics and lobbyism and campaigning. Very true. But the essence of the Oscars, the meaningfulness of it all, still has to do with what is great filmmaking.
    If we introduce another set of criteria, we will never be able to truly recognize that art is not a matter of justice, but a matter of the sublime. It’s a breathing space from the demands of the political sphere, it is where the private self can engage with its hopes, fears, prejudices and desires. And not feel shameful about it.

    We need that dimension more than ever.

  • Josh

    The reviews for this movie seem interesting. A lot of seemingly great reviews yet then you see what they score it on Metacritic and it has one perfect score, and nearly all the other scores are in the 60s, some 70s and a handful of 80s. It’s at 67 right now over there with I’m guessing 25 more to come in.

  • Bball_Jake

    I kind of see The Butler as The Blind Side(decent movie), or EL&IC(which I thought was amazing) slot in the Best Picture race this year. Not amazing reviews, and a little to schmaltzy and hollywood friendly, but good enough to make it into the Best Picture race, especially with Weinstein behind it.

  • Josh

    Yep. Although I would compare it also to maybe Les Mis in terms of ratings. No one really hated it, lots of people thought it was good or very good, very few thought it was great or ultimately the best picture of the year.

  • Ryan Adams

    it looks like we’ve made it official – a movie doesn’t have to be good to be oscar-worthy.

    That’s the lesson the Academy has been tirelessly trying to teach us for more than 80 years.

  • Bob Burns

    “It’s time to open the door and take a good look around.”


  • steve50

    I know, I know. I’ll never learn.

  • steve50

    Great response, Julian!

    More than ever before – and I’ve been watching this circus since the 60s – it appears AMPAS may have the greatest opportunity in its history to do what it likes best – to combine art, politics, and emotion – with a minimum of three films.

    One of these we know is a major (and moving) work of art (Fruitvale). The second is getting middling reviews and the third, as yet, is under the veil, but holds much promise. A win by any one of the three would accomplish AMPAS’ goal of promoting itself as a progressive industry.

    To promote one as “oscar-worthy” despite lesser reviews diminishes not only the other film that has better reviews, but also diminishes the Academy by suggesting that the better effort is above and beyond them. And that’s where I continue to have a problem.

    Only twice in the recent past have they risen to the task and chosen the tougher, less sentinmental effort (The Hurt Locker and NCFOM). Just when we think the Dark Ages are ending, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t get a nod and Argo takes the prize.

    I love Sasha’s last paragraph. The idea of a transfer of power is great and I’m hoping they do open the door and look around – really look hard.

    I expect to continue my Don Quixote routine, however.

  • Robrt A.

    In the interest of historical accuracy, just a reminder that Zero Dark Thirty did get a nomination for Best Picture but missed out on a director nomination, which Argo almost missed.

  • Christophe

    Or they can choose Saving Mr. Banks, the feel-good hommage to the greatest man in Hollywood history who also happens to have won the most Academy Awards (and nominations) EVER!

    Just because a movie has better reviews doesn’t mean it’s better in the eye of everyone. Critics do not vote for the Oscars. The Academy does what the Academy wants!

    Just because a movie is sentimental doesn’t mean it can’t be good or artistic. I don’t see why so many people, especially in film ctiticism, are so scared of sentimentality, must be some kind of neurosis due to repressed feelings.

  • Curtis

    Off topic but The Buler is number 1 on Fandago and a lot of Boxoffice pundits are predictin it to make between 20-25 this weekend.

    Fandango 5

    1. Lee Daniels’ The Butler
    2. Planes
    3. Kick-Ass 2
    4. Jobs Go
    5. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters Go

    Also it seems like this movie is Getting reviews near or better than the Help.

  • steve50


  • KMS

    I read maybe two sentences and tuned out, but I’m guessing “the good ones” are critics who agree with your high praise for The Butler. Wake me when it’s over.

  • moviewatcher

    I strongly agree with your last paragraph. Some people seem to be allergic to any kind of emotion. Of course there ARE some movies that are just over the top sappy that should get criticized for it.

    I really feel that one of the most important things for a critic to understand is the difference between bad, unearned, cheap sentimentality, and good, earnest, sincere emotion. It’s a fine line and it can get blurry some times. However, no one will ever convince me that in Schindler’s List Spielberg didn’t earn that scene where Liam Neeson breaks down and cries. It’s called catharsis (ask Aristotle).

    This of course has also lot to do with the line between smart entertainment and dumb entertainment and the stigma against mainstream movies. But this is such a hazy and personal part of film criticism that it’s best not to get into it.

  • Bob Burns

    there is a culture around the telling and re-telling of these stories that is quite large and decades old now…. not just the high culture of books, films and museum displays but a popular culture played out in school auditoriums and churches.

    I have a vivid recollection of a youth camp where I volunteered. The black kids, who didn’t know one another, and with only a few hours prep time put on a high quality half hour dramatic/musical/dance pageant about the civil rights struggle.

    and that is where, ultimately, The Butler will be judged…. not by the Academy steakeaters, but by kids who have already seen dozens of productions about these stories, their parents and grandparents.

  • Jpns Viewer

    I am interested in seeing this film because of the buzz about it. (At the end of the day, I seldom go to cinema because of the buzz around it but I am somewhat following a couple of critics’ pieces from time to time and then decide for myself if I should spend my hard-earned money….But that’s another story for now.)

    My expectation being, I basically hope The Butler, er, sorry, Warner, well, please do not sue me, … […] Butler will meet my needs and wants as a good, solid movie in broader terms; and if it gets me thinking, for instance, like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, then kudos to all involved.

  • Richard B

    Not to be confrontational. but it seems Sasha’s “pushing” the Oscars to recognize The Butler based on its importance would be the exact thing she would rail against. While I haven’t seen the film, critics’ reactions seem rather apologetic about its flaws because they recognize its overall importance too. Yes, safe is never a good thing, but I highly doubt anyone with a serious interest in film would call The Butler a masterpiece. I’m not an idealist, but when I watch the Oscars I want to see the best film win, no other qualifications necessary.

  • Jpns Viewer

    “Just because a movie is sentimental doesn’t mean it can’t be good or artistic”


    I did read comments on AD and sometimes — specifically before this year’s Oscars –spotted comments […] in random by otherwise interesting readers, somewhat whining about how some great directors including Spielberg (this has got nothing with moviewatcher’s second paragraph on 8/15 8:08) et al being too “manipulative”. And whether or not it be my mind playing tricks […], it got me thinking about those (well-craft) emotional scenes, as well as certain traditional (to my mind) approaches maestros such as Spielberg, as well as some other filmmakers, tend to choose. In short: Spielberg’s films in general are good/great, each as a whole, solid and entertaining if nothing else – I just don’t understand why some people just can’t stand Emotion and Convention, etc. showcased therein….

    (I also dislike the term chick flicks. [And I’m a guy] But that’s another story.)

  • Casey

    I believe that the fact that Harvey has been pushing this so hard, lands this one solidly in Oscar contention. I think Oprah is a lock for a nomination, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see big box office numbers either this weekend. And the academy will want to prove their lee Daniels nomination was not a fluke. I think the butler has legs to go a long way

  • Tom

    No high praise, apparently, from Ronald Reagan’s biographer who claims that the film portrays him as a stone racist and completely ignores his history of fighting against racial discrimation. Still going to see it, but I’m suspecting that all Left Presidents will have glowing portrayals, while all the Right Presidents will be maligned. Are Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter even in this film?

  • LilyB45

    Admirers of President Reagan will tolerate no portrayal of him that is not one of pure, unmitigated, praise. The fact that they pounced so quickly on this movie because it dares to cast a critical eye to his stands on Apartheid in South Africa or the AIDS epidemic is not surprising.

  • steve50

    +1 I was getting lonely out here

  • julian the emperor


  • Bryce Forestieri

    Maybe she just likes the movie a lot? You really think LEE DANIEL’S THE BUTLER needs extra-help from anyone? It’s #1 at the box-office, poised to end-up with the THE HELP kind of numbers, good reviews, people like it, plus Oprah and The Fat-ass behind it. Who called it a masterpiece anyways? You yourself said the reviews sound more like apologies, and that’s fine with AMPAS, they love that shit. No push necessary for this one, does that even work? I bet if it wasn’t a movie that makes you uneasy like this one you wouldn’t be non-confrontationally protesting.

  • Todd S

    That quote is almost directly ripped out of The Onion’s hilarious fake review,33517/

  • Winston

    This is political pandering for historical illiterates. The white liberal guilt narrative.
    Someone has to explain why Zero Dark Thirty was slammed for historical inaccuracy but The Butler can engage in gross historical slander and get rousing applause from the same critics.
    Just Hollywood’s way of patting itself on the back. Again.

  • Winston

    Incidentally can anything be more fatuous than Andrew O’Hehir’s “review” quoted in the article. It’s important because of Paula Deen privately saying a bad word 20 years ago? Or Zimmerman, half Hispanic with a black grandparent being acquitted on a very questionable debatable murder charge. And Detroit bankruptcy? Huh? So that fact that the city went bankrupt do to sad legacy of riots, gross misgovernment and the flight of its tax base, white and black, due to spiraling crime proves the “importance” of The Butler? What is this desperation to find racism at all costs? Is this how people feel better about themselves? It’s pitiful. This movie deliberately panders to that brain dead attitude.

  • Joseph

    The audience clapped at the end of this film when I saw it last night. It’s an important film – yes, shifting in tones – but an engrossing story well told. A big crowdpleaser. Yes if it were a white film – it would be a Forrest Gump, a King’s Speech – a big Academy favourite. It deserves to be a Best Picture nominee and depending on how the year pans out – acting contender for the more likely contenders Whitaker and Winfrey.

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