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.
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.