The jury is still out on whether audiences will take to Lee Daniels’ The Butler. I suspect they might find in this film one of the more satisfying two hours at the movies in a good, long time. The critics seem somewhat divided, with many offering up conditional raves. But it’s charmed two notoriously tough to please outlets so far. Slant magazine, not known for their effusive praise, has praised Lee Daniels’ The Butler:
It’s hard to think of a recent film that’s at once so familiar and welcoming in its overarching story of hard-won triumph and yet so radical and nuanced in form. At one point, a bus of Freedom Riders, Louis among them, is stopped and overtaken by the Ku Klux Klan, a member of which tosses a Molotov cocktail into the vehicle. Another director would have stayed outside with the bigots and let our blood build to a boil, but Daniels keeps us in the rushing terror, boxed in by barking German Shepherds and white supremacists. There are similar sequences involving Louis, including a glimpse at the prep for the sit-in, where the director clearly bears his teeth, but it’s never at the expense of belittling Cecil’s way of life or cheapening his contribution to civil rights. Daniels continuously reminds us that the black men and women who worked within the racist system were pushing toward equality as much as those who (more than justifiably) didn’t, in a more covert manner. The film’s defining moment is when Louis, discussing plans with other activists, vocally disrespects his father’s profession and a wiser colleague reminds him that Cecil is really a subversive.
Daniels indeed produces a strange and antic melodrama out of Cecil’s life, his story beginning brutally with the (unseen) rape of his mother (Mariah Carey) and his father’s murder by their employer, Westfall (Alex Pettyfer). It’s Westfall’s grandmother (Vanessa Redgrave) who teaches Cecil how to set tables, serve, and take care of her home, but it’s the kindness of a shop-keep, Maynard (Clarence Williams III), that sets the course for his life. Ultimately, Cecil’s private life is mainly defined by his bumpy relationship with his boozing, Faye Adams-loving wife, Gloria, played by a phenomenal Oprah Winfrey. She brings the ache of age and the pain of a compromised life out of her character with as little as a disinterested glare toward her man on the side (Terrence Howard). When Gloria is entertaining, however, Winfrey brings out her own manic social energy, and she’s electrifying. And while at work, Cecil is surrounded not only by world leaders, but also by an array of co-workers and close friends, brought to varied, vivid life by Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, and Colman Domingo, and the busy atmosphere and whirl of work talk is reminiscent of a Robert Altman film.
And the Village Voice’s Stephanie Zacharek:
In Precious, the characters were walking symbols for the worst horrors of inner-city life. The Butler puts its characters first. Daniels re-creates some of the most potent and horrific images of the civil rights era, including those of young black protesters being blasted with firehoses. But his approach is, for the most part, more personal than instructional. You can see where everyone is coming from in The Butler, why some characters are afraid to ask for more while others dare to demand it. When Cecil says, in voiceover, “Any white man can kill any of us at any time and not be punished for it,” it’s impossible not to think of Florida today.
There’s something else going on here too. There are more terrific black actors in Hollywood than there are good roles they might actually land. The Butler creates an open, freeing space for lots of these performers. Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Yaya Alafia: Everybody is good. Whitaker is one of those observant, understated performers who says everything between the lines. His Cecil has spent a lifetime being deferential to white people, but as one character cannily points out, subservience can be quietly subversive.
Winfrey might be the finest of all. You’d think she might turn Gloria into a snoozy role model. Gloria is flawed (she drinks), but Winfrey knows when to go for laughs too — she takes the role seriously without making it self-serious. One night, after she and Cecil have been arguing, Gloria rouses herself from bed — she’s just a bit sozzled — and goes over to her vanity mirror, where she applies a coat of lipstick as meticulously as only a truly angry woman can. She taunts her husband: “I bet you wish I spoke French, just like Jack-ay.” There’s bitterness in that moment, but Winfrey also makes it funny. This is the opposite of great-lady acting — it’s something much better, more vibrant and alive, and whatever The Butler‘s flaws may be, Winfrey’s off-the-cuff fortitude is emblematic of its spirit. Daniels has made a proper movie, with all the conventionality that implies, yet it’s progressive in its heart. Sometimes the best way to fight the power is to bend it to your will.