A humble heart living through harsh times.
When we watch movies like The Butler, we are reminded of our history and why we must never return to the horrible origins that we came from. When I say that, I am saying that regardless of race. The film is obviously centered around the issues of slavery, segregation, and racism, and asks us to feel sympathy towards the African population for all of the horrible things they’ve been through. But the movie evokes a more powerful emotion from me personally, a deep sense of regret and shame that my own race, the Caucasians, were at one point responsible for all of the death and cruelty we inflicted upon our own African brothers. And why? Because they have a different pigment than us? That’s the sort of hate and bias that lead us to World War II when Adolph Hitler led the Third Reich against the Jews.
Based on the career of real-life butler Eugene Allen, The Butler follows the story of Cecil Gaines, a black butler who grew up during the slave era, growed up learning how to be a white man’s servant, got a job at the White House, and continued to serve there for almost 35 years. Throughout his career he witnesses history unfold in itself, from President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s (Robin Williams) decision to enforce desegregation laws in Arkansas, to witnessing the assassination of John F. Kennedy (James Mardesen), to seeing the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers, to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., to the eventual inauguration of Illinois Senator Barack Obama into office.
The Butler is an earnest, humble film, parts approachable and observant yet equally ambitious and honest. Like movies such as Ghandi, The Hurricane, and The Shawshank Redemption, this is a movie that looks into the reality of situations and shows them exactly how they were, no matter how tragic or heartbreaking those circumstances were.
Take, for example, the scene where the Ku Klux Klan is introduced. During his college years, Cecil’s son Louis (wonderfully portrayed by David Oyelowo), was on a bus to protest against a racist Alabama. While on their way, their bus stops suddenly as they stare at the white-robed, torch-bearing Klan staring at them with their hateful eyes. Equal parts petrified and terrified, the protestors desperately tried to escape before the Klan started igniting the bus with fire and molotovs.
I sat there watching these scene, equally infuriated and enraged as I was emotional and mournful. How could this be our country? How could this have once been our land, our people who so hypocritically claimed to be the land of the brave and home of the free?
To watch these scenes and to incur such an emotion takes great skill and courage, and I think Lee Daniels does a great job orchestrating these scenes in ways that makes them so emotional and powerful. Daniels, who was nominated for an Oscar in 2009 for Precious took quite a fall last year when he made Paperboy, a idyllic, preposterous, and morally reprehensible film that was anything except relevant, coherent, and well, good. Here Daniels redeems himself, and leads a star-studded cast through such a gripping, overwhelming story that I think it surpasses his accomplishes even with 2009’s Precious.
Oh yes, the cast. The cast is what makes this picture, but you already know that if you take the time to simply read the cast list. Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. John Cusack as Richard Nixon. Liev Schriber as Lyndon B. Johnson. Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy. John Mardesen as JFK. Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower. Alex Pettyfr as a plantation owner. Terrence Howard as Cecil’s neighbor. Cuba Gooding Jr. as a head butler. For Pete’s sake, Mariah Carrey is in the film as Cecil’s mother and she doesn’t even say a line of dialogue.
The best performances, however, are the lead ones by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey. Whitaker, who won the academy award for The Last King Of Scotland in 2006, steals the show in every single scene he’s in, showing the still portrait of a man who is tired, weary, and emotionally strained, a man who has seen endless ages of wrongful suffering but can do little to change it because he’s worrying about himself and his family. Winfrey is equally as striking as his wife Gloria, a woman who is also hurting and in deep suffering because of her situation and because of a drinking problem she has long struggled with. Both of these characters are central and integral to the plot and to the progression of the story, and at many times, they’re the only ones carrying the movie through as a whole.
The Butler is one of the best films of the year. Period. I know there’s a lot of movies about African-American history being released later on this year (Such as Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom and 12 Years A Slave), but there’s no denying the power, drama, or the history the movie so brilliantly provides us. Yes, there are some inaccuracies to the butler’s real-life story (Starting with his name, with the real name being Eugene Allen), but the fact that it is loosely told is the best asset Daniels has towards his narrative. Since the figure is so little-known in today’s world, it allows Daniels to let loose and tell the story that he wants to tell, not the story that he’s committed to tell. This is a movie that shows the history of a great man and a humble servant who was simply trying to support his family and to get through the days of wrongful judgement and discrimination.