[Alevision Co/Unsplash]

Lee Daniel's The Butler

00:00 August 26, 2013
By: Kristal Blue
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[Courtesy of The Weinstein Company]

** 1/2 out of ****

Lee Daniels' The Butler is reminiscent of 2011's The Help. Both are accessible, never-dull portraits of the civil rights era in America, but both PG-13 rated films feel like they're holding something back.

Forrest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a butler who survived the cotton fields of his youth to work as a White House butler from the 1950s to the '80s. The film's central relationship is between Gaines and his oldest son (David Oyelowo), who creates friction in the household, first by risking his life with the Freedom Riders, then by joining the Black Panthers.

Oyelowo is the film's strongest presence; the scenes depicting the indignities civil rights activists endured so African-Americans could have simple rights are the film's best. A juxtaposition between a sit-in and a fancy White House dinner is effective, but the majority of White House scenes feel like they're keeping viewers at a safe, reassuring distance from that era's ugliness. A late shot that's both funny and moving would've been a terrific end to the father-son story, but the film lasts an additional 10 minutes.

The Butler has too much going for it to be dismissed, but it doesn't quite hit the heights it's shooting for.

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