The Butler entertains, educates on American history
By Anna Spiewak, Contributing Entertainment Editor
Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” which topped the box office and honed in a whopping $25 million opening weekend, is a film that needs to be seen by all Americans and residents of this country, alike. With Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, and Jane Fonda, it is inspired by true events. Those that are not keen on reading up on U.S. history, but like to be entertained will get that political and social lesson in this motion picture.
From the roots of the civil rights movement, to the quirks of all the American presidents serving in the White House between the 1950s-1980s, the period is seen through the eyes of a black Butler, Cecil Gaines, played flawlessly by Forest Whitaker (who became a serious actor, but most of us still remember him as the aggressive football jock Charles Jefferson in 1982’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”). Cecil’s character is based on the real-life butler, Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents. Screenwriter Danny Strong interviewed Allen and 25 other staff members of the White House prior to writing the script.
“The film is not inspired by a true story, it’s inspired by many true stories,” said Strong during an Aug. 5 press conference at NYC’s Waldorf Astoria. Strong, ironically, is white, telling a compelling story of the black struggle.
“It was magic from the moment I read (the script),” said director Lee Daniels, also at the conference, a heavyweight in the black entertainment business, who is best known for producing “Precious” and “Monster’s Ball,” for which Halle Berry, the first woman of color, garnered the Best Actress Oscar win in 2001.
The film shows Cecil’s struggle coming from a Southern racist state, moving to the North and making it as a well-liked butler in the White House, who tries to abide by the “white man’s rules” and gives his family a better life than what he had experienced. Cecil’s way of survival as a black man in America serves as a foil for his older son Louis (David Oyelowo), who decides to take a different approach to race and his place in the world, by joining the fight and struggle of equal rights in a country at a time when segregation, of “whites and “coloreds” was commonplace and practiced in restaurants, bathrooms and schools. Going away to college, Louis takes part in freedom bus rides and lunch sit-ins, evoking aggression and violence from whites, at some points the scenes are difficult to watch, and then eventually joining the Black Power movement. While Louis is seen pushed around and arrested several times, we see juxtaposing scenes of his father Cecil serving steak and lobster on china plates and golden silverware to presidents and first ladies entertaining their guests. The two men’s different approaches to the issue of race in a period in our country when laws were passed on that subject, causes a frequent strain between the two men. Cecil’s stay-at-home wife, Gloria, played surprisingly by the most independent woman of color, Oprah Winfrey herself, is caught between her husband and son’s differences, while coming to terms herself with the fact that her husband spends more time at his job then at home.
“I wanted to allow the spirit and integrity of all African-American women, colored, Negro at the time, who stood by their men and held their families together with their grit and determination, and allowed their own dreams to be repressed,” said Winfrey during the press conference. “Gloria is a composite of women of that era, 1950s and 60s.”
Cecil’s family is a microcosm of what was going on at the time in the country in terms of civil rights, racial strains and everyone coming to terms with change.
The film offers a star cast, often criticized by reviewers for the odd picks to play some of the commander in chiefs, such as Robin Williams, who plays Dwight Eisenhower, the president under which racial integration at the schools takes place. John Cusack plays “tricky Dick” Richard Nixon, revealing his insecurities as president early on in the film. Liev Schreiber is Lyndon B Johnson (LBJ), a man with way too revealing bowel movement problems. Handsome James Marsden plays JFK, the president most sympathetic to the black cause, who tries to make a change, but is stopped short through his infamous assassination. Appealing to the millennial generation, Minka Kelly plays the attractive Jackie Kennedy. Alan Rickman is Ronald Reagan, who opposes South Africa’s apartheid issue. And Jane Fonda appropriately plays the first lady, Nancy. Cecil’s coworkers at the White House and friends include Carter Wilson, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., (best remembered for shouting “show me the money!” at Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire), and the brooding James Holloway is played by no other than rock star Lenny Kravitz, who is almost unrecognizable in the film sans his piercings, tattoos and Aphro. Maria Carey also makes an appearance earlier in the film as Cecil’s mentally unwell mother.
Cecil quietly struggles with cognitive dissonance as he sees his son arrested on TV, hears racial slurs from people he is trained to serve and ignore their comments. His personal and political self are at times difficult to separate, but he manages to keep them apart for most of his life.
In one scene, while being interviewed for the butler position at the White House, he is asked if he is political, to which he replies “no.”
“Good,” says hiring butler Freddie Fallows played by Colman Domingo, “there’s no room for politics at the White House.”
One does not have to be African American to feel the black struggle and sympathize with the Gaines family and several others that experienced life in segregation-driven America. The film is fast paced and never ceases to bore, keeping the viewer engaged throughout the 132 minutes.
“The ability to tell the story of “The Butler” in an entertaining way and allowing the rest of the world to experience part of our history that made our nation, who and what we are, and to demonstrate the love story of an African-American family in a way that tenderness is exposed, shows that we are more alike than different,” Winfrey added.
The Butler is currently playing at a theater near you.
Tags: African American Women, All African Americans, American, American History, American Presidents, American Women, Apartheid In South Africa, Butler, Cecil Gaines, Coming Out, Domestic Work, Film, House Wife, Jane Fonda, O: The Oprah Magazine, Oprah Winfrey, Precious, The American President, The Butlers, The Oprah Winfrey Show