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‘The Butler’ Review Roundup: Is It Really a Civil Rights Version Of ‘Forrest Gump’?

the butler movie by lee daniels

“The Butler” reviews are in ahead of  the film’s Aug. 16 premiere date and based on some of the criticisms, it may be worth watching.

Officially titled “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” after a last-minute name change after a legal dispute between Warner Bros. and The Weinstein Company, the Lee Daniels-directed film is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, who served as a butler in the White House for over 30 years, from the 1950s through the 1980s.

Forest Whitaker plays “Cecil Gaines,” Allen’s fictional counterpart, while Oprah Winfrey plays his wife Gloria. They are joined by a star-studded lineup of supporting actors, including Mariah Carey, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Vanessa Redgrave, Lenny Kravitz, Robin Williams, Jane Fonda, and many more.

“The Butler” will open to mixed reviews. While the film was praised for the way it condensed a vast period of American history into 135 minutes and for its portrayal of an African-American family during that period of widespread racial injustice, many critics took issue with its “Forrest Gump” handling of historic events and contrived “Oscar-bait” moments.

Here’s what the critics had to say:

Scott Foundas of Variety:

“Daniels himself has likened the film to “Forrest Gump,” a comparison that holds for both good and ill. And if the real life of your protagonist isn’t inherently dramatic enough … well, that’s what Hollywood screenwriters are for… Where
“Forrest Gump” kept its parade of historical personages restricted to real archival footage, however, “The Butler” nearly capsizes in the first hour under a flotilla of special-guest-star presidents and first ladies who seem imported directly from Madame Tussauds. Given Daniels’ background as a casting director and the savvy stunt casting he’s done in the past, it’s stunning how off most of the calculations are here…”

William Bibbiani of CraveOnline :

“Thanks to Whitaker’s touching lead performance and a script that keeps the scope of the entire civil rights movement contained, but appropriately dominant in a single movie, ‘The Butler’ is actually quite good as a simultaneous double feature with itself. It may be shameless Oscar bait… alright, it is shameless Oscar bait… but it does its job. It keeps history neat and tidy and serves the audience well.”

Katey Rich of The Guardian:

“A great film about the American civil rights movement is way overdue. ‘The Butler,’ overwhelmed by flash and good intentions, doesn’t even come close.”

Geoff Berkshire of HitFix:

“We’re so used to seeing civil rights stories filtered through the eyes of white characters, it’s easy to imagine a version of  ‘The Butler’ that simply chronicles Cecil’s relationships with a series of presidents. Instead, the parade of old white men is just another part of this story, at no point threatening to overshadow what the movie is actually exploring.”

Oprah Winfrey and Terrence Howard in Lee Daniels' The Butler

Alonso Duralde of The Wrap:

“As a mass-audience-friendly portrayal of this nation’s legacy of racism, ‘The Butler’ is head and shoulders above feel-good kitsch like ‘The Help’ because it portrays racism as ingrained, institutionalized and part of the legal system rather than simply being the result of vocal and identifiably mean people.

“Racism was (and, in many ways, still is) part and parcel of the system, and it’s Cecil’s coming to understand and acknowledge that fact that gives ‘The Butler’ much of its power.”

Matt Patches of Screen Crush:

“‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler‘ is an eight-course meal of movies served all at once. The entree is a searing racial drama, haunting in its depiction of America’s stained history. The other seven courses, delivered without grace, flatten the taste. Fine ingredients — a rousing ensemble and sporadically sharp script — can’t make up for a cook’s sloppy work. ‘The Butler’ is a mishmash of prestige qualifiers, unfit to dish out, but plated nonetheless.”

Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter:

“And yet, even with all contrivances and obvious point-making and familiar historical signposting, Daniels’ ‘The Butler’ is always engaging, often entertaining and certainly never dull, the latter a fault for which neither the director nor the writer, thus far in their careers, can ever be accused. Each scene has its purpose and complimentary energy, the actors all seem unified in a joint cause and the angle from which the historical panorama is presented remains sufficiently unusual to sustain rapt attention. This is not an artful, tidy or sophisticated film, but its subject and his stationary odyssey are of such a singular nature that, as a great playwright once wrote, attention must be paid to such a person.”

The critics have had their say, but moviegoers will get a chance to see “The Butler” and draw their own conclusions when it opens in theaters next week, Aug. 16.

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