|Lee Daniel’s The Butler|
In the history of American cinema, there are but a few handfuls of films that transcend merely being movies and become defining crowning achievements that perfectly reflect a moment in our culture. Lee Daniels’ The Butler is one of those films.
The film tells the real life story of Eugene Allen, an African American man who served as the White House butler for 34 years. Forrest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, the fictional version of Allen. We watch as Gaines goes from a boy raised on a plantation in 1920’s Georgia, taken into the house after his father is murdered, to the best servant at the finest hotel in Washington DC. It is here that he meets his wife, Gloria (played with fiery grace by Oprah Winfrey). It is also here that he is hired for the White House under President Eisenhower. Through six more Presidents, we watch Gaines become invisible to the white men and women he serves and it is this ability that allows him to witness the secret conversations of the most powerful leaders in the world. Simultaneously, his oldest son goes against the grain and becomes radicalized for race equality. Both Gaines men want the same outcome, but both have very different means of attaining it.
As the White House butler for 34 years, we are able to witness this history ourselves through Gaines’ pained, weary, peaceful eyes. We watch as history literally unfolds while segregation, Jim Crowe and race riots all come into the nation’s consciousness. We hear the hate in the voices of those who thought lesser of another human being because they were born with a different skin color than their own. We watch the struggle between those that stand by and hope for a change and those that demand change by any means necessary. We see the indifference many have as this all goes on in their own country.
With the world around him in chaos, Gaines’ home life is no better. Gloria turns to alcohol to deal with her husband who isn’t there. Their oldest son goes from the first person in their family to attend college to joining the Black Panthers – the opposite of how his own father wanted change to occur. We see their youngest son, innocent, torn between them all. These delicate subtleties raise the film from mere historical period drama to an emotional study on family in America.
The cast of The Butler takes the film to another level. You forget that Gaines’ wife is played by Winfrey, the powerhouse titan beamed Into our living rooms each day. She gets as lost in her role as her character does in her alcohol. This performance isn’t just Oscar worthy- it’s Oscar defining. Forrest Whitaker effortlessly plays a man struggling with the weight of the country’s issues – and his own family’s – on his shoulders. The pain in Whitaker’s eyes is not something you get from any actor. It’s something you get from a master in his class. Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding, Jr. play Gaines’ best friends and coworkers. A huge ensemble of big name stars round out the cast, playing various presidents and First Ladies. They each give their all in their small cameos.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler should be required viewing for anyone in the United States. It should be a film shown to freshmen year in every high school in America. That’s how important this movie is. While obvious dramatic license was taken in adapting Eugene Allen’s story (and the filmmakers have no problems admitting that), it was necessary to marry the human elements of a man and his family coming to terms with a changing nation and the inhumane treatment of people of their color.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a masterwork in cinema. It is what art is supposed to be: storytelling that not just entertains, but educates. It takes us far away from where we are here and now, and takes us through this mans’s journey through change. Change in his nation, change in his family and change in himself. We can’t ask for more than that from our art.