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Lee Daniels' The Butler
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Lee Daniels' The Butler is a sweeping look at the history of African-American life in the United States, as witnessed by a black butler (Forest Whitaker) who spent three decades working in the White House. Since the movie chronicles the history of the civil rights movement, there are many scenes that portray hate crimes -- like two lynched men hanging from a tree and a black sharecropper being shot for saying one word to his white boss. White Southerners are also shown raping, killing, shooting, burning, intimidating, and otherwise terrorizing black protesters. Adults smoke cigarettes and drink; one character is an alcoholic who has a drink in most of her scenes. There's also some language (one "f--k," plus "s--t" and many racial epithets) and kissing, as well as the suggestion of an affair. Audiences will get an overview of how various presidents felt about race relations, as well as the methods and ideologies of the civil rights movement.
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What's the story?
In LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) tells the story of his remarkable life. Born the son of cotton pickers in early 20th-century Georgia, Cecil witnesses his father's execution at the hand of his remorseless young boss and is then brought into the plantation house and taught how to be a domestic servant. He escapes Georgia for North Carolina, where a hotel butler teaches him everything he needs to know to about working for wealthy white patrons. Cecil is offered a job at a prestigious Washington, D.C., hotel and one day is unexpectedly given the opportunity to join the White House's domestic staff as a butler. As Cecil serves three decades' worth of presidents (from Eisenhower to Reagan), his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), struggles with alcoholism, and his oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), joins the civil rights movement.
Is it any good?
There's no question that Lee Daniels' The Butler boasts an extraordinary cast, led by the marvelous Whitaker. The scenes with Whitaker and his fellow White House butlers -- played by Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. (in the best role he's had in a long, long while) -- are funny, heartbreaking, and well acted. Oyelowo proves once again that he's a star on the rise as Cecil's activist son, and Oprah looks like she's having the time of her life drinking, smoking, and dancing her way through the decades (although she never really looks older until her final scenes).
But as well-intentioned as director Lee Daniels is in showing the scope of the African-American experience via one prestigiously employed butler, the movie doesn't live up to either the content or the cast. The film, particularly in the scenes with the various presidents -- all played with enthusiasm by Robin Williams (Eisenhower), James Marsden (Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (Johnson), John Cusack (Nixon), and Alan Rickman (Reagan) -- feels like a remix of Forrest Gump: contrived scenes of a man witnessing history in the making. Even though the film was inspired by a true story, there are parts that are so overly sentimental (like a young Caroline Kennedy improbably discussing the burning of a Freedom Riders bus) and formulaic that it takes away from an otherwise powerful story of African Americans' struggle for equality.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about American history and how it's witnessed by Cecil and his family. Even though Lee Daniels' The Butler is dedicated to those who worked in the civil rights movement, the protagonist is an apolitical butler. Why is his eyewitness account to history so compelling?
What would you say the movie's main message is about the civil rights movement? Which character are viewers meant to identify with the most?
What did you learn about the civil rights movement, the history of segregation, or the way that various presidents dealt with race relations? Do you think the movie is entirely accurate? Why might filmmakers take liberty with the facts?
- In theaters: August 16, 2013
- On DVD or streaming: January 14, 2014
- Cast: David Oyelowo, Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey
- Director: Lee Daniels
- Studio: Weinstein Co.
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: History
- Run time: 113 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking
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