Forest Whitaker in “The Butler”
Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey in “The Butler”
By Dwight Brown
NNPA Film Critic
It’s about time. Finally a major-release film about the African American struggle for equality, told from a Black man’s perspective. Why has it taken Hollywood (aka the film industry) so long to do the right thing?
Eugene Allen served eight presidents, Truman to Reagan, over 36 years in various positions at the White House. However, it is his role as a butler that made him the subject of a Washington Post article in 2008, “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” and brought him notoriety. That article and his life, from the days of segregation, through the Civil Rights Movement, War in Viet Nam and end of apartheid, became the basis for this evocative film that intelligently pays homage to Allen and Black American history. Lee Daniel’s The Butler is a momentous accomplishment. A milestone.
Cecil Gaines grew up in Macon, Ga., picking cotton with his father in the 1920s. After his dad was killed, he worked in a home on a plantation as a servant. As a young adult, Cecil (Forest Whitaker) parlayed his service skills into a job at a swank Washington, D.C. hotel, where his ability to be apolitical and verbally spar with rich White men got him noticed by an official at the White House. He and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) were pleasantly surprised when he got a job at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There, he slowly grew up the ranks, becoming a head butler who worked directly with the leaders of the government.
Cecile and Gloria had two sons. Louis (David Oyelowo, Red Tails), the rebellious one, and his younger brother Charlie (Elijah Kelly) reaped the benefits of a stable middle class life. They grew up in a nice environment, surrounded by nurturing friends and family members. When Louis went off to Fisk University, it was inevitable that he would rebel against his apolitical father and become an ardent civil rights advocate. He met and fell in love with Carol (Yaya Alafia, Mother of George), and the two, through sit-ins and civil disobedience, sought an end to Jim Crow laws and segregation.
Cecil was mortified to learn of his son’s endeavors. Meanwhile at the White House, he was setting tables, serving martinis and making small talk with Eisenhower (Robin Williams), JFK (James Marsden), Jackie Kennedy (Minka Kelly), Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber) and Nixon (John Cusack). Rarely did the conversations with the leaders of the free world touch on politics, but when they did Cecil’s instincts were to avoid confrontation.
Upstairs, the presidents and their White male staff members made far-reaching decisions on civil rights, wars and world events. Downstairs, the mostly Black maids, kitchen staff, doormen and butlers formed a camaraderie. Cecil was a friend to co-workers James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz) and Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr.). Cecil’s attention to duty, and not to his wife, led Gloria to booze and another man’s (Terrence Howard) arms.
Danny Strong, from just an essence of truth, has written an ambitious screenplay that charts the course of politics, as it relates to the African American community, in the 20th and 21st centuries – specifically through the dissimilar eyes of a complacent, aging man and his rebellious son.
The Gaines’ parent/offspring conflict seems raw and personal; at the same time it represents the wide spectrum of opposing political and social viewpoints in the Black community. On screen you see a temperate Black man mingling with Republicans, a young Black man being beaten by police. The clashing actions conjure deep, profound emotions because of the father and son’s combustible and often archetypical relationship. Cecil’s the old guard, poor Blacks that rose to the middle class and felt little need for agitation. Louis represents the counter-culture offspring, activists who thrive on confrontation.
Gloria warns Louis, who is eager to join protests: “They gonna lynch you and throw you’re a– in the river.” Louis: “Then they gonna have to kill me.” Gloria: “Everything you are, everything you have, is because of this butler.” The long-suffering dad: “Every gray hair I have is cause of that boy.” The Gaines engaged in genuine conversations that countless parents had with their offspring during the ’60s and ’70s, when the country shed old values for the new.
Cecil’s character arc is long and slow. It’s very fulfilling to watch the elderly man evolve. And, capitulation is a theme that reverberates throughout the film, as presidents change their opinions on civil rights and equality. Eisenhower, JFK, Johnson, Reagan are presented as imperfect people, making far-reaching decisions on segments of the population they simply don’t understand. None are drawn as all evil, or all good.
Daniel’s directing career is a study in contradictions. His previous films run the gamut. Shadowboxer: Stylish, but very esoteric. Precious: Heartwarming, but off-putting. The Paperboy: A repulsive miscalculation. Yet some how, those films prepared Daniels for this stroke of genius. It’s as if he’s risen to his full potential.
Skillfully, he interweaves prissy White House parties, with brutal racist attacks and archival footage.
He takes complicated ideas and formats and turns them into easily discernible filmmaking. The juxtapositions are striking. You never question the validity of a scene. You feel more like an observer of history or a nosy neighbor spying on a family in discord. In all actuality, a lot of this film is fiction built on fact (read the Washington Post article after you see the movie). Party scenes at the Gaines’ house feel like get-togethers at Black homes, back in the day. Card games. Cocktails. Mom’s potato salad. Casual conversations about politics, social issues, work and the gossip evoke graphic memories of the times.
Oprah’s performance grows on you. You know you’re watching a billionaire mogul on the screen, but her acting overwhelms her pop culture persona. By the end of the film she’s worn you down, and Gloria feels like that pushy aunt who was always the life of the party. Forest Whittaker’s portrayal is even subtler as he ages from a young man to an octogenarian. The nuances of his scenes with presidents, jovial moments with colleagues and the turmoil at home make Cecil feel authentic. David Oyelowo’s passage from teen to middle-aged man is equally mesmerizing. He works the anger emotion well. Terrence Howard, as the neighborhood lothario with a blatant sexuality and volatile temperament, is suitably edgy. Minka Kelly and James Marsden embody Jackie K. and JFK and other various cameos are right on target. Minus Mariah Carey, who seems miscast, though her performance is solid.
The original score by Rodrigo Leao raises levels of emotion at the right time. Andrew Dunn’s (Precious) photography captures the feel of the time period well, though sometimes a soft halo lingers over white shirts, making the footage look too soft. Joe Klotz’s (Precious) tight editing gives the film an internal rhythm. Tim Gavin’s (Prime Suspect TV series) production design recreates locations flawlessly, from the Oval Office, to MLK’s fated motel room, to the infamous, segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter.
This film obliterates other recent films that chronicled Black history. There is no worthy comparison.
Miracle at St. Anna: Well-intentioned, poorly conceived. Lincoln: It white-washed emancipation. The Help: A White lady saves the day. Django Unchained: Slavery as a joke.
As voting rights take a beating from the Supreme Court, and Black kids are killed for walking down the street, the pertinence of this film is oh so apparent. A young Cecil when explaining how he became such an adept server: “I was a House-N’word.” A new mentor corrects him: “Don’t you ever use that word! That’s a White man’s word filled with hatred.”
This powerful drama, which is based on fact and told from a Black perspective, puts the African American community’s hard-fought struggle for equality into context. Brilliant. Historic. Compelling.