Opening 10 Oct 2013
In 2008 Wil Haygood wrote an article for The Washington Post about the history of black servants in the White House. His story inspired this film, and director Lee Daniels found a prestigious cast of actors to bring it to life.
Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) was butler to President Dwight D. Eisenhower first and the seven presidents who followed. When he was an old and much respected employee at the end of his career, he was given the honour of a private meeting with America`s first black president.This is no ‘What-the-Butler-Saw’ or Behind-the-scenes-at-the-White-House movie. Instead it chronicles both the development of the Civil Rights movement and the equally turbulent progress of Mr. Gaines’ life at home with his wife and sons.
Daniels concentrated on those presidents who did most for the African-American community. Eisenhower, played sensitively by Robin Williams, was kindly and avuncular. Kennedy (James Marsden) was appalled at the violence in the South and determined to improve matters there. Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber) pushed through human rights laws which greatly advanced the status of black people. The only time Mr. Gaines let his non-committal mask slip was when he served Richard Nixon (John Cusack), who wallowed in his disgrace and failure while believing that he could overcome it and continue in office.
Mrs Gaines (Oprah Winfrey) felt neglected by her husband’s commitment to his work and turned to alcohol, cigarettes and an amorous neighbour for comfort. She wanted to see inside the White House, but when she and Cecil attended a banquet held by the Reagans (Jane Fonda and Alan Rickman), they felt uncomfortable and out of place. The Gaines boys also felt hard done by their father’s sense of duty to his work, but each in his different way served his country bravely. Charlie (Elijah Kelley) chose to fight in Vietnam rather than attend university. Luis (David Oyelowo) funnelled his resentment of his country’s treatment of black people into an active participation in the birth of the Civil Rights movement. He took part in lunch counter sit-ins and rode in one of the first freedom buses to the South. Cecil and Gloria had a lifetime of anxiety, often not knowing whether their son was alive or dead as the Civil Rights movement grew more dangerous and violent. In his later years, when he was swept aside after he summoned every ounce of his courage and asked that black workers in the White House be given the same wages as white ones and that they be considered as often as their white counterparts for promotion, Cecil embraced his son’s activism.
The opening scenes of this movie are harrowing, and the violence continues throughout. Today the hatred and viciousness displayed in the Sixties by Americans to their fellow Americans is incomprehensible. This is a long and rambling movie which attempts to cover America’s history from just after the Second World War to the present day from the point of view of an ordinary man in an extraordinary position. The performances of Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey stand out among many wonderful cameos from a star-studded cast. The movie is dedicated to those brave men and women who participated in the Civil Rights movement, and it is fitting that it debuts this year, which is the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s inspirational speech in Washington. (Jenny Mather)
Black Consciousness: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” (The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Dubois)
Cecil Gaines was told that he must have two faces if he was to succeed as a butler. He was a hungry, young, poor man whose hands only knew how to handle cotton and his masters’ fine china. When he breaks into a home and is caught binging on homemade cakes, he begs the house butler to give him work. So begins his education, which leads him to working in the White House in the span of eight U.S. presidents.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a film about the duality of the human race and how that duality, if not reconciled, leads to commitments of unspeakable horror. It’s about Cecil Gaines’ tenure in the White House as a butler, witness to a stream of U.S. president’s views and policies of the on-going civil rights. What they said to the American people and the truth he overheard as the invisible butler serving them their teas in the Oval Office. His story runs parallel to his own son who decides that his “double consciousness” would become one and trains to be an activist in the movement, riding the freedom buses, being beaten and harassed in the protests. This clashes with Cecil’s point of view to keep a low profile, not to draw attention to his family, to just work for the white man and earn his living. He’s come from slavery and is happy to have his own home, where he can provide for his wife and children. His son, growing up in a comfortable suburban upbringing, refuses to be complacent and defies his father’s views.
There are many narratives and stories in this film. There is the struggle between father and son, the civil rights movement, the life in the White House as a butler, the family and their individual lives. This can make the film feel all over the place, cutting short a character’s story to rush into the next scene. For Lee Daniels, this is a departure from his earlier films (Precious, Paperboy, etc.) and their exquisite study of a few characters circling around one story. He is self-possessed in this film, forgoing his usual shock tactics for a glossy polish.
Yet the film, with its all-star cast, still managed to pull it off. For this is not a film about an in-depth study of civil rights. It’s about a humble butler played by the terrific Forrest Whitaker, his wife played convincingly by Oprah Winfrey, his son, and all the characters he encounters. There is a taste of American history through fantastic period costumes, music, food, and the private and public lives of its citizens. Most importantly, you will witness the redemption of the three main characters peacefully reconcile their two faces and see Cecil finally meet a president who resembles him.
Lee Daniels has made a true Hollywood film, with just enough heartbreak and joy played by Oscar-winning actors to engage even the weariest of viewers. (Lubi Barre)