Lee Daniels' The Butler

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) started life picking cotton on a farm in Macon, Georgia.  He witnessed the murder of his father at the hands of plantation owner Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer) following Westfall’s attempt to rape Cecil’s mother, Hattie Pearl (Mariah Carey).  Cecil is moved into the house by Westfall’s mother, Annabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), after the murder and taught how to be a house servant.  As Cecil neared his 20’s, he left the plantation for fear he too would be murdered.  Unable to find work, Cecil is hungry and homeless.  He breaks into a bakery that is part of a hotel.  He’s found by the head butler Maynard (Clarence Williams III) who takes pity on Cecil and gives him a job as a server in the hotel.  After several years, Cecil is very good at his job and takes to heart the direction Mrs. Westfall gave him as a child that when he’s serving people, it should be like no one is in the room.  Maynard is offered a job at a posh Washington DC private club but suggests Cecil take it instead.  While serving at the club, Cecil’s ability to interact with the movers and shakers of Washington DC without espousing his own opinion impresses the man who oversees the White House domestic staff, Mr. Jenkins (John Fertitta), who calls Cecil in for an interview.  Cecil is soon hired to serve in the White House where he sees history made on a nearly daily basis.  His long hours at the White House put a strain on his marriage to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and his relationship with his two sons Louis and Charlie (David Oyelowo and Elijah Kelley).  Louis is especially troubled by what he sees as Cecil’s servitude to white men who run the country and largely ignore the plight of black people.  Louis becomes involved in the Civil Rights movement when he goes to college at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.  While at various meetings of Civil Rights groups on campus, he meets Carol Hammie (Yaya Alafia), a beautiful young woman who is dedicated to changing the status quo.  The pair leaves school and become Freedom Riders which frequently get them beaten and lands them in jail.  While they rarely speak, Cecil and Louis usually argue about Louis’ activities and Cecil’s career choice.  Meanwhile, Cecil is privy to the discussions in the White House between the President and his advisors about the growing Civil Rights movement in the South and how to deal with it.  While the household staff is mostly invisible to those who work there, occasionally Cecil is asked his opinion about what’s going on and if the President is making the right decisions.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” follows one man’s life from his childhood through his final years.  Everything from the Civil Rights movement to the election of Barack Obama is covered in the film.  That’s a great deal of history to cram into a film with a running time of two hours and 12 minutes.  While it tries very hard to be thorough and give as much information as possible, it sometimes feels as if the movie makers have taken far too many shortcuts in the narrative.  What suffers most is the portrayal of the five presidents we see.  Eisenhower, portrayed by Robin Williams, seems to be the most blank slate of them all.  While he takes decisive action with the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, Williams acting suggests Eisenhower was more of a kindly grandfather than a world leader.  The other presidents depicted are reduced to one-note caricatures:  Reagan, played by Alan Rickman, seems clueless about the proper course of action against South Africa’s former apartheid government.  Kennedy, played by James Marsden, is portrayed as a wide-eyed crusader for civil rights.  Nixon, played by John Cusack, comes off as either slimy or crazy.  Johnson, played by Liev Schreiber, is just shown as a man who has no tact or manners.  Johnson is shown giving orders to his aides while he’s sitting on the toilet, spewing curse words like a sailor.  Each president, with the exception of Nixon and Reagan, is shown learning about the struggles of black Americans by watching television and having their opinions changed in a way that leads to legislation like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Act.  This is the Cliff Notes version of history and it makes “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” feel hurried and slapped together.
The movie’s plot also takes a great many shortcuts.  It telegraphs approaching bad news usually by allowing the character some happy times that must come to an end in the most tragic way.  This starts very early in the film when we see Cecil and his father roughhousing out in the cotton fields.  Right after this, the plantation owner attempts to or succeeds at raping Cecil’s mother and then shoots his father in the head.  When Cecil and Gloria are celebrating his birthday, they are informed of the death of their youngest son in Vietnam.  Homecomings transform into angry fights.  Love affairs devolve into bitter emotions.  Happiness and disaster seem to be attached at the hip in the film.
While the movie isn’t perfect, “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” is a heartfelt and emotional story that provides younger audiences with a brief look back at the most turbulent period of the 20th century in America.  Whether it’s an image of two black men lynched in a small southern town or Freedom Riders being harassed and beaten by the Ku Klux Klan, the film doesn’t mind showing the ugliest aspect of this time.  One particularly effective use of troubling imagery is when a White House state dinner is juxtaposed with Louis and other students sitting at the “whites only” section of a lunch counter.  As fine china and gold-plated silverware are being used by men and women in formalwear, bigoted whites are yelling racial slurs and throwing food and hot coffee in the faces of the student who are eventually beaten and arrested.  The contrast in these two images may be the most moving and troubling scene in the film.
Forest Whitaker is wonderful as Cecil Gaines.  His quiet strength and resolve while on the job is usually reflected in his home life; however, there’s a lightness and playfulness that’s evident when he’s off the job.  Whitaker is masterful at portraying Gaines as a three-dimensional character who isn’t perfect but can learn from his mistakes.  His troubled relationship with his son Louis gives Whitaker a chance to show Cecil’s darker side.  Oprah Winfrey surprises as Gloria Gaines.  She plays against type in the role as Gloria is an alcoholic who is jealous of all the time Cecil spends at the White House.  Her jealousy and loneliness leads her to engage in an affair with a neighbor played by Terrence Howard.  Those who have only seen Winfrey on her talk show or cable channel will not know what to think about an Oprah who smokes, drinks and cheats on her husband.  It’s a fine performance that may be hampered by the notoriety and image of Winfrey.  David Oyelowo owns this film as Louis.  His journey from conflicted teenager to angry militant underpins the whole story.  Even when he’s not on the screen his actions largely control the story and the emotions of the rest of his family.  Oyelowo gives Louis a deep emotional center that resonates with the audience.  We worry about him when he’s in a dangerous situation or when his quest for social justice leads him and his girlfriend to join the Black Panther Party.  Really, we just want Louis and Cecil to make up and become a family once again but wonder if it can ever happen.  The strength of Oyelowo’s performance makes us care for his cause and for a hoped for reunion with Cecil.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material, language, disturbing images, smoking and some violence.  Casual and violent racial bigotry is often on display in the film.  The sexual material is mostly discussions of sex.  We see a couple in bed following sex but nothing is shown.  We see two black men who have been lynched.  Archival news footage from the period also shows violent action taken against protesters.  Many characters smoke in the film.  Foul language is mostly mild and infrequent.
While the film is somewhat simplistic and unapologetically sentimental, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is a very good film about a time in America that we should all know more about.  I hope the audience will invest a little time in research and get more facts about the Civil Rights movement.  You can also learn more about the man on whom the movie is based.  Eugene Allen worked at the White House from 1952 to 1986.  An article in the Washington Post called “A Butler Well Served by This Election” is the basis for the movie and is available to read at this link http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/06/AR200811....  Mr. Allen never missed a day of work in his over three decades of service to the eight men who occupied the office of president.  He was proud to serve and enjoyed his time at the White House.  While dramatic license has been employed in the movie, the story is pretty close in many respects to what you see on screen and makes you respect the adaptation even more.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” gets four guitars out of five.
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