Movie Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Forest Whitaker plays a butler in The Butler who serves the White House and includes himself in history.

Forest Whitaker plays a butler in The Butler who serves the White House and includes himself in history.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is another surprise hit movie of the summer. It doesn’t feature the typical fare for what one would call a ‘summer movie.’ Actually it features more mature fair that’s meant for a release around October, November or even December. So how did it manage to become a hit this summer?

The Butler is a unique story of Cecil Gaines. Born in a cotton field, he was forced into labor by the Westfalls, a Georgia family who owned the plantation. Even though slavery was out of existence, it didn’t stop people from treating their black employees like slaves. The son raped Cecil’s mother and shot his father dead. The state’s caretaker, the mother, takes Cecil out of the farms and assigns him to be a house servant. However it would be a businessman whom encounters Cecil after he breaks into a bakery and steals a cake after running away. The businessman turns him into a successful butler who’s able to provide a good income for his wife and children. Something very rare for an African-American man to be able to do before 1960.

A breakthrough occurs when Cecil is offered a job as a butler at the White House. This is a big breakthrough for the Gaines family as they can improve their way of life. However it does not come without its prices as Gloria feels alienated from Cecil and his workaholic manner and turns to adultery. His son Louis becomes very involved with political activism and the Civil Rights Movement from restaurant sit-ins to the Black Panthers movement. That doesn’t sit well to Cecil at all to the point they fight and they don’t speak for years. His 34 year career as a butler in the White House takes some turns as he’s able to converse with the president and even influence many on how they deal with African-Americans. Cecil is also involved in other incidents such as the riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination to losing his son in the Vietnam War. The story intertwines with his career with social changes for Black America during that time period with his own family life from his childhood to his career to Obama’s inauguration.

A short while back when I was doing a Wikipedia search on the movie, I learned that this film is loosely based on Eugene Allen: an African-American butler who first served in the White House in 1952, advanced to Maitre d’Hotel in his career and finally retired in 1986. The movie admits that this is inspired by a true story rather than actually being a true story. Though one can doubt the truthfulness of the story, the script by Danny Strong does capture one’s attention and is able to mix the White House life of Cecil with moments of history and even the struggle of one family dealing with the changes and trying to make life better for themselves and for their race. It’s almost like Cecil could be labeled the ‘Black Forrest Gump.’ The relationship between Cecil and Louis also highlights the divisiveness between two generations of African Americans. One learned he had to work hard to get places. Another adopted the new attitudes of Black pride during the 60’s. The clashes between the two represent the clashes of the two generations of Black America. Lee Daniels also does a very good job of directing the movie with its complexities. This is a big move for him to go from something like Precious to something more polished. Nevertheless it’s a very good move and can allow him to replace Spike Lee as the top African American director in the business.

The actors were also excellent, especially Forest Whitaker as Cecil. I’m not sure if Forest is trying to imitate Eugene Allen or trying to make Cecil into his own character–I admit that I myself have never seen video footage of Eugene Allen–but he gave an excellent performance both in terms of the character’s personality and his aging. Oprah Winfrey also gave an excellent performance as Gloria encompassing the struggles of maintaining family unity while dealing with a husband that seems too preoccupied with success. David Oyelowo achieves a personal breakthrough here as Louis Gaines. He does a very good job of representing the new black attitude of his times in both life and personal political attitude through Louis Gaines. Supporting acting was also very good from star actors like Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Vanessa Redgrave, Mariah Carey and Jane Fonda. The supporting acting performances from the lesser-known actors like Mika Kelly, Nelsan Ellis, Elijah Kelley, Clarence Williams III and Yaya da Costa were also very good and added to the ensemble cast. One thing that struck me about Yaya da Costa’s performance of Louis’ girlfriend is the Black Panthers scene where she has a big afro and admits her desire to kill. Didn’t she remind you of Angela Davis in that scene?

There’s one glitch in the movie, it’s the casting for those who portray presidents in the past. At first I thought Robin Williams as Eisenhower was a good choice but the others didn’t seem so.  John Cusack made Richard Nixon seem awfully young as did Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson and James Marsden as John F. Kennedy. All three of them were at least ten years younger than the presidents they played when they assumed office. I feel the biggest miscast was Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Reagan had a charming personality and Reagan was not seen as charming at all in the film but rather a toughie. Makes me wonder what was with this? Was it miscasting? Or were those the ways the presidents looked to Lee Daniels or through the eyes of Cecil Gaines?

One final note of the movie. This was the scene near the end showing Obama’s election to the Presidency in 2008. I know that there has been a ton of flack given to Obama over what he’s done or what he’s failed to do as President of the United States. One thing you can’t deny is that even in the five year’s since his election, he’s still the face of hope for a race and other racial minorities. That’s one thing that can’t be taken away.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is an excellent movie worth watching. I have sometimes co-related to movie to Forrest Gump where a man is part of history. Despite some of its flaws, it was an excellent intelligent alternative to the hyped-up summer stuff and still draws audiences now.

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