Movie Review: 'Lee Daniels' The Butler'

The new movie Lee Daniels' The Butler stars Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey in a story that took five years and 37 producers to bring to the screen. The film is inspired by the real life career of a White House employee who served eight presidents.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, now let's go to the movies. The new film called "Lee Daniels' The Butler," stars Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey in a story that took five years and 37 producers to bring to the big screen.

L.A. Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan has this review.

KENNETH TURAN: "Lee Daniels' The Butler" is neither as good as it might have been nor as bad as you may have feared. It's an ambitious and overdue attempt to create a Hollywood-style epic around the experience of black Americans and the Civil Rights Movement. The film was inspired by the real life career of a White House employee who served eight presidents. But "The Butler" abandons reality to create fictional composite characters that allow decades of history to fit into one family's tumultuous story.

Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker, starts work at the White House in 1957. And one of the film's strengths is the gregarious banter of his coworkers, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz.

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CUBA GOODING, JR.: (as Carter Wilson) Hey, there he is - heard you were coming. What's your name, my brother?

FOREST WHITAKER: (as Cecil Gaines) Cec - Cecil Gaines.

JR.: (as Carter Wilson) Cecil Gaines.

LENNY KRAVITZ: (as James Holloway) (unintelligible)

JR.: (as Carter Wilson) Well, I'm Carter Wilson, the head Butler. Don't worry about Bi Moe behind you. That brother will steal your wallet before you even know it. This brother at the mirror over here, his name is James Holloway, my second in command.

WHITAKER: (as Cecil Gaines) James.

KRAVITZ: (as James Holloway) Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays?

JR.: (as Carter Wilson) Why don't you shake the man's hand first before you start asking difficult questions like that?

KRAVITZ: (as James Holloway) I just want to know where the man is coming from...

TURAN: "The Butler" starts to give off mixed messages when Cecil's politically active son Louis, played by David Oyelowo, comes of age. The clashes between father and son over the utility of getting arrested in the South are intense.

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WHITAKER: (as Cecil Gaines) Are you even in school?

DAVID OYELOWO: (as Louis Gaines) I'm trying to change the way negroes are treated...

WHITAKER: (as Cecil Gaines) That judge just sentenced you to 30 days in the county workhouse. You going to get killed.

OYELOWO: (as Louis Gaines) If I can't sit at any lunch counter I want, then I might as well be dead.

TURAN: But "The Butler's" plotting becomes too contrived. The film turns Louis into a kind of African-American Zelig, present at every key Civil Rights turning point. That's Louis sitting in at a Woolworth lunch counter, getting fire-bombed on a Freedom Rider bus, getting assaulted by a fire hose in Birmingham, being with Martin Luther King in Memphis just before he died, even putting on a beret and becoming a Black Panther.

All this stuff did happen, but it strains credulity to have it all happen to one person. "The Butler," sadly, undercuts itself by hitting too many points on the nose with a nine-pound hammer.

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GREENE: That's Kenneth Turan. He reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and for the Los Angeles Times.

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GREENE: This is NPR News.

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